Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Go Teeth!

At a conference recently, a well-known palaeontologist made a passionate plea for us to appreciate  teeth more as tools for palaeontological analysis: "go teeth!" he yelled as a conclusion, hoping to leave us rooting for them.

I wasn't shouting anything nearly so positive after a recent visit to the dentist, the place where smiles go to die. Once you've been told of all the horrible things happening in your mouth, it's difficult to muster enthusiasm for those unreliable enamel time-bombs ticking away in your cranium, reminding you of your imperfection and mortality. However, teeth are massively important in the study of vertebrates, particularly mammals with their fabulous heterodont gnashers.

Heterodonty means we possess different kinds of teeth, whereas being homodont (having only one tooth type) is common in many non-mammals. We have two sets of teeth in our lives - a condition known as diphyodonty. Humans have 20 baby teeth (deciduous) and 32 adult teeth (permanent) - children don't have a full set of molars.
This is the nightmare scenario in a child's face before
they replace their deciduous set of teeth. The permanent set
are ready to erupt. Image via Wikipedia: Henry (Vandyke
, Henry Gray (1918)).

Dental formulas are used as a shorthand for describing how many of each tooth can be found in a mouth. They look like gobbledigook at first, but are quite straightforward once you get the hang of them. The formula lists the number of each type of tooth in one half of the jaw, incisors.canines.premolars.molars.

So humans have the dental formula:

Above the line is the upper jaw, below the line is the lower jaw. So we have:

2x incisors. 1x canine. 2x premolars. 3x molars (Upper jaw)
2x incisors. 1x canine. 2x premolars. 3x molars (Lower jaw)

So to get the full formula, you have to multiply all that by two = 32.

Dental formulas are for one half of the jaw, so
the picture above is (Image: Wikipedia)
That's all very well in theory. I lay back on the wipe-clean, reclining chair of gob-doom, and the dentist had no sooner looked into my mouth than she crooned like a mating eider duck, tapped on one of my front teeth and exclaimed "oh we have ourselves a baby tooth!"

It turns out that I am a dental mutant*. Not only did my baby canine tooth never fall out, but the beautiful little sharp permanent canine that should have replaced it had moved next door instead, replacing my second incisor. This explained what I've long referred to as my "wonky smile". Both my father and brother have the same strange quirk in their dental arrangement.

So the "Panciroli smile" has this formula (on just one side, the other is "normal"):

"Normally when this kind of thing happens you end up with the canine growing out of the gum above the tooth," my dentist continued, poking around enthusiatically. "You usually need a dentist to fix it. For some reason your second incisor just never appeared, and they all just grew in nice and straight. Amazing!"

I suppose it is a little amazing, and lucky. This is a mutation my father - and possibly many generations before him - passed to me and my sibling. While I mourned the loss of the incisor I never had, and the permanence of this uneven grin on my face, I was left wondering about the possible mutants out there which could mislead palaeontologists studying their remains.
Imagine if a future being was excavating on earth, and the only human fossil they uncovered was a member of my family?
And what if all they found was the upper right jaw, complete with two canines?

They might think humans naturally had this dental formula:

Probably not. Nevertheless, teeth do deserve their (ocassionally resented) place at the heart of palaeontology, especially in mammal research. As I gaze down the microscope at my latest specimen - an individual straddling the boundary between reptile and mammal - I have a growing appreciation of all that a tooth can tell us about diet and life history.

Go teeth indeed.

Oligokyphus teeth down a microscope. (Image by me, taken at University of Cambridge)

*It's worth remembering that we are all, in fact, mutants. That's just how biology works.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Collecting Corals at Kinghorn

This week, Scotland reminded everyone how it keeps it's grass so verdently green. Some of the international students were dismayed to discover that the nippy wind and persistent drench that greeted us as the undergrad palaeontology class disembarked the bus for our fieldtrip, is pretty much the norm, rather than the exception. It's no problem though, just pack your waterproof trousers, put up your hood, and take little trek to get the blood pumping.

We walk along the coastal path to reach the fossiliferous beds.
This week, we were exploring the Carboniferous (Brigantian, 327-330Mya) sedimentary rocks on the coast between Kinghorn and Kircaldy. This place is a haven for geologists, with layers of volcanic eruptions and ash beds interspersed with successive marine sediments, all deposited when Scotland was basking in a tropical glow just north of the equator.

We had passed the offending volcano on our way to Kinghorn, now only a remnant nobble overlooking the nearby town on Bruntisland. But it was the mudstone, limestone and sandstone beds that were the focus of our day. Deposited in different environments over millions of years - from swamp to sea bed - these layers are rich in crinoids, bivalves, brachiopods, bryozoans and corals.

Stunning sandstone outcrop.

The beds are tilted and encrusted with extant marine invertebrates, but between the barnacles are copious fossils for the keen
palaeontologist to admire.
As luck would have it, the rain peeled back as we combed the shoreline. Our students took notes and photographs of the fossils embedded in the sediments. There were pocketable sized chunks along the shoreline too, nice to take home even if they are separated from their provenance. The students will try to identify the various groups and create a report about the site, the environments these beds were laid down in, and the ecosystems the creatures were part of.

Rugose coral amid the crinoid carnage of a Carboniferous sea bed. This place must have been a haven of life.

Don't forget to scour the beach - waves are nature's fossil preparator.
A little further along the coast were riches I'm much less familiar with: trace fossils. In this case, burrows - the rocks were riddled with them. Even more delightfully we found pieces of tree: Lepidodendron and Stigmaria. One of the two supervisors from National Museums Scotland who regularly accompany us on our field trips said they'd also found a trilobite the last time they'd visited (no luck this time though).

Trace fossils riddle the sediments.

A chunk of carboniferous tree, washed out and deposited on the sea floor.
As the rain swept out to sea again, the jutting shelf of the Salisbury crags and the nubbin of Arthur's seat came into view across the Firth of Forth, looking small beneath the pregnant clouds. It was time to head back along the coast to the bus, pockets bulging with Brigantian benthic bounty.

Looking across the firth at Edinburgh.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Talking Grap(tolites)

As a vertebrate palaeontologist, I struggle sometimes to understand what motivates invertebrate workers. Sure, the stuff they study is often copious. It provides vital biostratigraphic information, allowing us to date rock more accurately, often inter-continentally. But it's all so... boring.

Having said that, it turns out you can get pretty enthused about even the least charismatic of fossils, providing you found it yourself. I recently accompanied the Edinburgh University 3rd year undergrads on the first of a series of field trips for their Palaeontology class. We travelled an hour and half on roller-coaster roads south of the city to Dob's Linn: a ravine near Moffat in the Scottish borders. There, we found graptolites.
The road to Dob's Linn (Image: author's own)
Although not far from the narrow road, it quickly felt remote as we descended into the small glen.
Sheep startled and scattered at the approach of forty sets of undergraduate boots, tramping along the river to the first of severel sites known for their graptolite fossils.

The short walk down to the mouth of the ravine. (Image: author's own)
Graptolites are somewhat underwhelming fossils, but very common in Palaeozoic shales. Their resemblance to writing led to their name: graptos = written, lithos = rock. They look like small needles, fern fronds or leaves (depending on the species), but in life they would have been attached to one another in colonies and were more closely related to animals than plants - their common ancestor is thought to be a Cambrian worm-like creature. The earliest filter-feeding graptolites were secured to the seafloor, but free-floating forms soon evolved, possibly with the ability to move around in the water column as jellyfish do today, following food in seasonal or perhaps nightly cycles.

Reconstruction of a floating graptolite colony from the
Redpath Museum, Montreal*
A linn is where water has cut a deep feature through the landscape. At Dob's Linn the river leads up a modest ravine to a waterfall that pours down a sheer rock face: a hidden reward for the graptolite-hunting palaeontologist. Dob's Linn is named for Halbert Dobson, a covenanter who hid from English persecutors for six weeks during "The Killing Time" by squirreling away in a cave above the waterfall.
The waterfall cascades over greywackes into the
shale ravine. (Image: author's own)
The most famous person associated with Dob's Linn is the eminant English geologist, Charles Lapworth. After moving to the Scottish borders where he fell in love with a girl from Galasheils (there's surely a song lyric in there somewhere), Lapworth recognised the importance of Dob's Linn in biostratigraphy, carrying out pioneering work on these little graptolite fossils. The site is now a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) for the Ordovician-Silurian boundary.
Amazing stratigraphy in the ravine (Image: author's own)

Although not the only creatures alive in the seas during the Palaeozoic, graptolites were composed of collagen and polymers that preserved in anoxic shales where other organic materials did not. As a result they've become vital in rock dating: beds from the Ordivician and Silurian are often dated based on assemblages of these strange creatures, sometimes with exceptional precision.
Little silvery graptolie fossils in shale from Dob's Linn. (Image: author's own)
Our group stopped at two sites along the ravine, finding many fossils of varied quality. Even students who had struggled to generate any enthusiasm for the sample graptolites we'd shown them in class were soon scrambling high and low with their bums in the air, picking through the shale scree. Once they realised how easy it was to find them, they raised the bar: everyone was trying to find the best graptolite, and the highest number of species.

Violets growing in the shale scree, as students hunt for fossils. (Image: author's own)

We all returned to the bus with our pockets filled with fossils (and for one unlucky student, shoes filled with peaty stream water...) and returned to the university ready to get out the books and identify our species.

Nothing beats fossil hunting, even for "rubbish" fossils.

*UPDATE - I've since been told the reconstruction of a graptolite colony in the Redpath Museum I've included here is innacurate, there is no evidence they had floats. Thanks David Bapst (@dwbapst) for the heads up!

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Fiction Books That Shaped my Views of Science

As well as a science-fiend, I'm a bibliophile. When I move house, almost all of the boxes are packed with those papers bricks I so adore. They are stacked on every shelf, mantelpiece and bedside table. These days I mainly read factual books, but I do still find time for fiction.

I think the fiction we read can be a massive influence on our interest in science, and our appreciation of the ethics and nuances of different technologies and their effect on both the human and natural world. After all, much fiction is written in reaction to technological advances and people's reactions to them; the perceived threats and benefits.

So I've selected my top 10 picks, in no particular order. Where possible I've selected the cover of the edition I first read. I've tried to find as many non-sci-fi books as I can (difficult, considering). There are many more I could list, particularly the classics - such as the many H.G Wells titles. However, this selection sticks out as having influenced my attitudes to science and technology in the first 25 years of my life.

How do they compare with yours?

Oryx and Crake (2003)

by Margaret Atwood

Atwood is one of my favourite authors, and this was the first of her books I read, having randomly picked it up in a charity shop, chosen purely for the name (two rare species of animal). Published in 2003, it is the first on an ongoing series, set in the same dystopian future.
The most influential thing about this book for me was the application of genetic engineering: her 'ultimate humans'. I won't say more in case I spoil it, but I recommend this to everyone.

Cats Cradle (1963)

by Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut's 1963 novel stands out as my favourite, probably because I have a thing for cataclysms caused by human technology, especially unintentional mishaps. This book deals with (among many things) the creation of a substance that could destroy all life on earth if a single mistake is made in handling or application. It's hard to say much without giving the end away, but essentially what struck me was the question of what would happen if all aquatic/marine ecosystems on earth were suddenly wiped out? I pondered over this for many months afterwards.

The Day of the Triffids (1959)

by John Wydham

This is one of my all time favourite books. Wyndham has such a wonderful writing style, and the topic is, of course, genetic engineering (and survival horror!). The re-imagining of this story in 2002 in the form of 28 Days Later (which is, in most ways, identical in storyline apart from the infected people rather than tripod plants) re-ignited my love for it. Everyone should read this.

Brave New World (1931)

by Aldous Huxley

It is one of the all time greats of sci-fi literature. While there are a many things I found influential about it, the most lingering scenes revolve around the people who live outside of the future dystopia. The revulsion at natural birth and the way people live without technology encouraged me to think differently about our perception of what is "natural", cleanliness, humans as animals, and the treatment of those without access to the technology that people in rich societies consider "good".
Much food for thought.

Jurassic Park (1990)

by Michael Crichton

Well it wouldn't be much of a list if this wasn't in it. As well as the obvious science here of genetic re-engineering of extinct species, the book is more multi-layered than the film. I spent a lot of time thinking about dinosaur behaviour, and how they'd react if placed in a modern context. Like many palaeontologists/biologists, it also sent me into an intense spiral of dino-fanaticism... *sigh*

The Hitchhiker Trilogy (1979-1992)

by Douglas Adams

(Note: these are not the editions I originally read, but I've forgotten what they looked like)
Adams' books got me thinking differently: about physics, about the possible and impossible, about the absurdity of the universe and the kind of mind-benders and illogical yet entirely logical arguments his written world is made of. Races that live time backwards, interstellar wars that end when it turns out one race is so large it can't even see the other race without a microscope, instant evolution, multi-dimensional mice... the list goes on. 
Of course they are also totally hilarious - teaching me that science is also fun.

The Earth Children series (1980-2011)

by Jean M. Auel

This is not the edition I read. Mine was pale yellow/green with shiny green lettering, I've never seen another edition of it.
I spent many hours in my youth pretending to be Ayla (the main character in these books): stalking through the woods, gathering grass seeds and grinding them between stones, learning the names of plants and their medicinal properties, and generally being a weird, wild, little girl (I read this book when I was 8, which was far too young.)
Auel's attention to archaeological detail is massively impressive, incorporating many significant finds into the narrative, including ideas about the origin of animal domestication, and Neanderthal vs human culture. You can forgive her the embellishments for the sake of good story telling. I still surprise myself with my knowledge of palaeolithic human culture, and almost all of it comes from reading the first in the series, The Clan of the Cave Bear, and the many sequels that followed it.
Real door-stoppers, but you just can't put them down.

Sphere (1987)

by Michael Crichton

Another Crichton novel, this one also adapted into a movie, but one that misses everything that's amazing about the book. My mind was blown by the conversations between the scientists about extra-terrestrial life, particularly the idea that something might exist in more (or less) dimensions than we experience. It was the first time I'd really given ideas like this proper thought. A great book.

The Island of Dr Moreau (1896)

by H. G. Wells

This book grew out of a movement against vivisection at the turn of the century. It is a masterpiece, dealing with ideas about what it is to be human, the conscious life of animals and their rights as living things. Like all of Wells' books, it retains a vitality and relevance despite it's antiquity, and does well to make you reflect on what drives people to alter 'nature'. Of course you can never go wrong with an H. G Wells novel.

I, Robot (1950)

by Isaac Asimov

Finally, Asimov's small collection of short stories on artificial intelligence (AI). I'd never been that interested in artificial intelligence, but these tales of pitfall, benefit and interaction between people and AI are considered among the best. The drawbacks of logic taken to the extreme interested me greatly, and are of course the focus of the namesake film. These stories go way beyond that though, and ought to be read by anyone contemplating AI and our role as creators.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Elizabeth Anderson Grey - Scottish Lady Palaeontologist

Have you heard of Elizabeth Anderson Gray? She was one of the most important and prolific female Scottish fossil collectors of her time, responsible for amassing collections that are still vital to our knowledge of the stratigraphy and species composition of the Ordovician and Silurian rocks of Scotland.

Born in Alloway, Ayreshire, to an Innkeeper, Elizabeth’s family then relocated to become farmers in Girvan, a small coastal town 60 miles south of Glasgow. Although she moved occasionally in her life (to Glasgow and to Edinburgh), it was from the rocks around Girvan that Elizabeth would collect most of her specimens during her long lifetime.
Elizabeth Anderson Gray spent her entire life fossil hunting. Her collections were vital to our understanding of early life on earth. (Picture from Carrick Scotland: Beyond the Tourist Guides)
Elizabeth’s father, Thomas Anderson (who had a trilobite and a coral named after him), introduced her to geology and fossil collecting when she was a child. From this point onwards she collected assiduously, continuing until the autumn before her death, at the age of 93. Like many women collectors, Elizabeth Anderson Gray was overshadowed publically by her husband Robert Gray, co-founder of The Natural History Society of Glasgow (NHSG), under whose name much of their joint wor was presented. This was necessary in the 1800s as most Societies where their finds might be presented did not admit women until the turn of the century.
Elizabeth Gray was dedicated to record keeping and extending our understanding of the diversity of early Palaeozoic life. Despite her modest early education, her lifelong learning was augmented in 1869 when she was invited to attend geology lectures for women at the University of Glasgow.
Elizabeth was clearly an astute woman. She ensured the importance of her finds was recognised by having them formally described by established scientists (who were of course, all men). Her legacy also survived in the Gray Collections, which were sold to museums across the United Kingdom, the main ones being the Natural History Museum in London and the Hunterian in Glasgow. Many of her finds are type specimens, the material that defines a species taxonomically, such as Hudsonaster grayae (an early starfish), Archophiactis grayae (also an echinoderm), and Lophospira trispiralis (a type of mollusc).

One of the fossils from the Gray Collection. ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Many specimens collected by Elizabeth are referred to in the proceedings of the Natural History Society of Glasgow between 1868 and 1878, and unlike many other women geologists of her time (notably Mary Anning) she even had the honour of having some named after her – although it was the surname she shared with her husband, rather than forename, that was mostly used for this purpose. Other material was named for Girvan, the area she found it in.
Using her detailed observational skill, Elizabeth presented a list of the fossils she collected in Ayrshire which was extensively used by other geologists in both Scotland and England. It formed an important contribution to the British Geological Survey’s volume on Silurian Scottish rocks.

The Grays were friends with the well-known geologist Charles Lapworth and fossil collector Jane Donald Longstaff.  Although considered by both herself and the professionals of the day as an amateur, Elizabeth was undeniably a skilled one; responsible for uncovering a great deal of the diversity of Palaeozoic rocks in Scotland. Years of collecting led Elizabeth to be well versed in geology and sedimentology, keeping careful records of her work. It is because she recorded the locations, geology and associations of each of her specimens that Gray’s collections remain invaluable to those studying the Ordivician and Silurian today. 

After her husband’s death in 1887, Elizabeth continued to collect fossils, often with the help of her two daughters, Alice and Edith, who undoubtedly knew a great deal thanks to the many “geologising” family holidays taken over the years. In 1900 Elizabeth’s contributions to geology were recognised by the Geological Society of Glasgow, who made her an honorary member. The Natural History Society of Glasgow followed suit a year later.

In 1903, at the stately age of 72, Elizabeth was awarded the Murchison Geological Fund from the Geological Society of London, for her lifelong contribution to early Palaeozoic geological research. She continued to collect and disseminate her material until the year before her death from bronchitis on 11th February, 1924. 
Elizabeth's daughters continued her work, they were known as "the Misses Grey". ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London
She had spent almost a century working in the field, and yet so few people know her name. Her daughters – referred to as “the Misses Gray” - continued to collect; diligently uncovering new specimens as their mother had before them. They eventually sold her remaining collection to the Natural History Museum, ensuring their mother’s work would survive and remain available for future scientific study. 

Without her, our understanding of the early Palaeozoic in Scotland and the UK would be much the poorer.

(this article first appeared on 27/5/15)

To find out more about the Gray collection at the Natural History Museum in London, search for her fossils here:
For more on the geology of Girvan, and the rest of Scotland, try

Burek, C. V., & Higgs, B. (2007) The Role of Women in the History of Geology. The Geological Society; Bath.

MacBride E. W., & Spencer W. K (1938) Two New Echinoidea, Aulechinus and Ectinechinus, and an Adult Plated Holothurian, Eothuria, from the Upper Ordovician of Girvan, Scotland. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 229

McCance M. (2002) Hugh Miller, 1802-1856, Geologist and Writer: His Links with 19th Century Girvan. Ayrshire Notes No.23

Peach, B. N, Horne, J., & Teall, J. J. H. (1899) The Silurian rocks of Britain: Vol. I.Scotland. Glasgow: J. Hedderwick & Sons. Available from:
Weddel, R.  ‘Some Significant Women in the Early Years of the Natural History Society of Glasgow’ [online]. Available from:

Monday, 29 June 2015

Time for a Nappe

The Alps span over 1000km and straddle eight countries - I passed through three of them on my Alpine journey: Switzerland, Austria, and Italy. I was based in the latter, where it borders Austria, in an area that has been fought over by Italy and Austria for hundreds of years. During the second world war, Mussolini and Hitler struck a deal where German speakers in this region of northern Italy had to either switch to speaking Italian, or move to Austria (then part of Nazi-Germany). As a result, families were split apart, including my own, and German-speaking South Tyrolean children found themselves being taught at school in a language they didn't speak. Now officially a bilingual province, South Tyrol remains ferociously independent and retains a unique mountain culture. 

Looking South to Italy from a high mountain pass.
These man-made borders mean little to the vast tectonics plates shifting below. There are folds, faults and crumples splitting up the earth here, but much of it is lost under forested slopes, or beneath human settlement. Once you start looking at rocks, even as an amateur, you begin to see how different they can be on neighbouring mountains. From the pale crumbling granite slopes of Mount Ifinger, I looked back to see the low hillside directly opposite burning red in the sunshine. I walked across the join between them, finding the red was a rich sandstone. How did these completely different rocks end up pressed together in this way?
The pale large-grained granite in the foreground contrasts with the vivid red sandstone beyond.
The chunky Ifinger granite is quite unlike the predominant schist of the rest of the valley. This is because it is on the other side of a tectonic divide between less deformed crusts and the heavily metamorphosed central alpine nappes to the north. Most of the area is Permo-Mesozoic in age, dominated by glittering schists streaked with red and yellow. The highest peaks - directly opposite the mountains I was ascending - were formed in a high-pressure squish, generating spectacular rugged pinnacles that harbour snow well into the summer.

Beautiful schists, with some kind of moth/butterfly larvae for scale.

Wonderful metamorphised rock, weathering by the track.
I was lucky enough to come across two geological phenomenon I was keen to find on this trip: garnets and fossils. The former can be massive and abundant in certain areas. I even found one to take home and add to my modest geology collection. As for fossils, metamorphism has destroyed much of what would have once existed in these rocks, but plant material can still be found. There is a museum dedicated to specimens found in a local quarry in Mölten, but the ones I came across were part of the collection of a family living on a high mountain pass near Austria.
Big red garnets dot the rocks near the Jaufenpass.
Black fossil plant material, with green lichen encrusting.
The final geological spectacle I'd been intent on seeing were the "earth pyramids". Despite having visited this area for years I only recently found out this phenomenon could be seen all over South Tyrol. Earth Pyramids are caused by selective erosion of glacial moraine. Where there are large rocks in the matrix, they form a kind of umbrella that prevents erosion by rainfall, leaving a pinnacle of earth and rock underneath them. The makes for a dramatic landscape feature.

Once you know what to look for, these earth pyramids can be seen all over the place - although some are more impressive than others. Much larger ones called the Pyramids of Renon, were too far for me to travel this time, so I sought out some more modest ones around Meran.

Photographed from a cable car as it drifted overhead, these earth pyramids are just above the city of Meran. They are especially pale and the amount of vegetation on them hints at their stability.
More earth pyramids, this time composed of a reddish matrix packed with rocks. These ones were less overgrown, so I assume they are eroding much faster.
I was careful and selective with my souvenirs, but needless to say I came back with a few chunks of Italy to call my own. A piece of Ifinger granite, a garnet, some schist and some mica. Having them is like keeping a portal in my house: I can pick them up and run my fingers over the surface, instantly transporting me back to the mountains. I do wonder what future geologists and archaeologists would make of them if they ever found the remains of my house...

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Some like it High

As if the alps weren't inherently gorgeous enough, throughout the summer they are cloaked in those low-growing, brightly coloured garments of alpine flowers. The habitat of the high mountains is a harsh tundra, where only the toughest flora and fauna survive. This makes the richness of these habitats all the more surprising.

I'm surrounded by alpenrose, Rhododendron ferrugineum.

If there's one thing I can confirm about alpine life, it's the increased ultraviolet radiation. Even with SPF 50 slathered on every inch of my skin, I got burned by the powerful sunshine at 2,500m. As well as withstanding this, alpine flora must deal with sporadic moisture content, harsh wind, unstable soils and radical temperature swings; somehow squeezing all growth and reproduction into the few fleeting months of high summer before being smothered again by snow and ice.

Soldanella pusilla or alpenglöckchen. This photo was taken next to a remnant ice patch near the summit of a mountain, testament to the high altitude speciality of this species. Love those frills.
One of my favourite flowers at high altitude is the little pink alpenglöckchen, Soldanella pusilla, known as snowbells in English. Although other members of this native European family grow lower on the slopes, this one is a specialist: found up to a dizzying 3100m above sea level. When I see it, I know I'm in heaven.

Short stemmed gentians, Gentiana acaulis.
Another classic alpine much loved by gardeners is the gentian. It is so symbolic of the mountains that it features on the Austrian one cent coin. Photographs don't capture the vivid blue of the petals, and people will travel miles just to see them. One of my relatives recommended a great place to see hillsides full of them, "just take the Jaufenpass and it's the last turn on the left before the top."
How will I know it's the last left? I asked.
"You will know because there won't be any more turns to the left after that."

Surprisingly I managed to find this "last left", and the hills were peppered with more gentians than I've ever seen before. I was also  introduced to the Alpen-grasnelke, Armeria alpina. Only just starting to flower, this little pink dude was dotting the dry slopes high above the valley.

Alpen-grasnelke, Armeria alpina
The other species I was introduced to is geologically relevant: Alpen-leinkraut or Linaria alpina. I found it on a particularly dessicated, steep mountain made of large grained and crumbling pale granite. This was no coincidence: this plant is one of the first to colonise exposed and loose rock-debris, such as glacial moraine and eroding mountainsides. Where others can't get a foothold, this mauve explorer pitches camp and flowers its heart out.

Linaria alpina likes a bit of rough... terrain. Also known in English as alpine toadflax.
Of course, there are hundreds and hundreds more alpine species to choose from, this is only a selection. Despite the harsh conditions they thrive and attract insects (see previous blog), making the high pastures and slopes unexpectedly ecologically diverse. You can find most of them in your local garden centre, but there's really nothing like having a chance to admire them in their natural habitat. Just remember and wear sunscreen.

Clockwise from top left: Primula hisuta, Pulsatilla alpina, Potentilla aurea, and Silene aculis. Some of the many intrepid alpine plants of Europe.


Still to come in my Alpine blog series: rocks. Lots of yummy, crushed, multicoloured, pitted, twisted and shiny rocks.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Alpine Stingers, Crawlers, and Flutterers

(Warning - contains many legs - but if you skip to half-way down there are pretty butterflies... awww)
I don't know much about insects, spiders and other creepy crawlies, but that doesn't stop me from finding them endlessly intriguing. This week on my holiday, I was happily skipping up a street in a tiny village on the river Passer - one of the glacier-fed tributaries of the Adige in Northern Italy. The sun was beating down and it was 35C, so I was wearing my "action sandals" (those outdoor ones with lots of velcro straps).

This was when I found the scorpion.

A scorpion is not something you want to meet when your feet are exposed, although this one was clearly dead. It was about 4-5cm in length, dark peat-brown, and had lost it's stinger. I'd never seen a scorpion outside of a zoo or pet shop, so I took pictures to show my Italian/Austrian family. They were perplexed - "a scorpion? No, we don't have scorpions." I showed them the pictures. "You found that here?"

This is probably Euscorpius germanus, a burrow dwelling scorpion that can live up to 2,500 metres altitude in the mountains. This one has lost it's stinger and was particularly big.. If you think my ID is wrong please get in touch, I am happy to be corrected by arthropod experts.
Turns out it's not just the locals who are surprised, most zoologists are unaware of the northerly European distribution of scorpions, especially those species living in mountainous areas such as the Alps or Balkans. They can dwell up to 2,500m altitude (this one was at ~600m), and the one I found - probably Euscorpius germanus - is the most northerly naturally-occurring* scorpion in Western Europe, having been found in northern Tyrol in Austria.
(There is a nice paper on European scorpions here)

Speaking of Arachnida, I am struck by the lack of spiders in the Alps compared with my homeland of Scotland. While reclining on my geranium-lined balcony, I marvelled at the heavy wooden beams of the building's construction. Back home, such a structure would be infested with spiders in every crevice, but not here. Why are there comparatively so few spiders in the Alps? The long winters? It certainly isn't a lack of flies...

Having said that, there were a lot of them on the slopes near the Jaufenpass (>2000m), where Italy and Austria share a border. These ones were like our wolf spiders and so sleek and fast I couldn't dream of getting a photograph. However, I did snap a few other arachnids on my travels. I tried to ID them, but admit to getting slightly nauseated (I'm a recovering arachnophobic). If anyone can help ID these little guys I would be much obliged (tweet @gsciencelady)

This guy tried to capture me in his web. I declined the offer, and draped him on a fencepost instead. A crab spider I believe, but what kind? (Tweet @gsciencelady if you know)
(24/6/15 - I've since identified this as a male Xysticus erraticus)

A leggy little dude who wobbled up a wall before posing for this shot. A harvestman of unknown parentage (if you can ID him, tweet me)

On a more fluttery note, the mountains were full of butterflies and moths.

Probably Phengaris alcon, the alcon blue.

Can you ID this butterfly?
(24/6/15 I now know this is not a butterfly, but a common heath moth, Ematurga atomaria)
A grizzled skipper, Pyrgus malvae? Common across Europe and fabulously fuzzy.

 The wildflower meadows were buzzing with crickets and grasshoppers. They are a pain to photograph, especially when all you have is a point-and-click like mine. However I will leave you with this stealthy wee dude and the meadow he lived in. Enjoy!

Alpine blogs still to come: geology and botanics!

*There are other species occurring as far north as the UK, but they were introduced by humans. Naturally occurring refers to post-glacial distributions.