Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Stamp collecting

'Science is either physics or stamp collecting.' This famous remark by the physicist Ernest Rutherford is largely true, but I must defend the 'stamp collecters', a fraternity to which I undoubtedly belong. Perhaps zoology or botany can become too laboratory-based, for in recent years concern has been expressed over the extent to which students reading for a degree in a field such as 'Plant Sciences' can leave university and not be able to identify more than a handful of common wild flowers. They have hardly visited a 'field' at all.
Does this matter? I think it does, and an obvious example from entomology makes the point: for how long would the dearth of bumble bees have gone unnoticed had 'stamp collectors' not picked up on this and drawn attention to a potentially catastrophic situation? Butterflies such as the Small Tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae, and the Duke of Burgundy, Hamearis lucina, make interesting case studies. The former remains a familiar insect but although its larval food plant, the Stinging Nettle, remains abundant the butterfly has nevertheless shown a significant decline. Why? The latter, once known as 'Mr Vernon's Small Fritillary' was never as familiar as the Small Tortoiseshell but its habitat of woodland clearings is now less common and in Wiltshire, for example, although it was known from 126 sites in the 1980's, a recent survey only found it in 23 locations. Laboratory work would never have revealed this problem.
So what brought on these profound ruminations? Have I had a devastating eureka moment? Not a bit of it. But these thoughts passed through what I refer to as my mind when I was looking at some common lichens and mosses on trees alongside Christchurch Drive, a stone's throw from our house. As far as I am aware all the organisms I noted are ubiquitous species. There was, for example, the lichen, Ramalina fastigiata, on twigs.

The lichen Ramalina fastigiata found adjacent to Christchurch Road,
Daventry, 17 January, 2017

Also present was a jelly fungus, Tremella mesenterica, again on a twig. This is also very widespread but often overlooked as it is inconspicuous when dry. Was it worth recording and reporting? The answer is surely yes.
The jelly fungus Tremella mesenterica can be eye-catching when wet.
Christchurch Road, Daventry, 17 January, 2017
Suppose an insidious pathogen were to attack and drive the lichen or fungus towards extinction, with serious knock-on effects. Or perhaps an atmospheric pollutant caused a dramatic reduction in its range.  The nature of the problem would probably be determined by laboratory work but it would be recording by the amateur naturalist, aka the 'stamp collector', that would flag up the problem.
The truth is of course that the philatelists and physicists are mutually dependent and perhaps we should regard their relationship as symbiotic which, under the circumstances, is surely an appropriate term.

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