COLOURFUL PIONEERS, STRANGE PARTNERS

Diarmuid Breatnach

They are all around us; they live but they are not animals. Nor are they micro-organisms – we see them clearly all in many places. They can grow on organic and none-organic surfaces. We might think they are plants – algae, moss or fungus but they are none of those — they are lichens. There are about 20,000 known species1 and they cover an estimated 6% of the Earth’s surface, able to exist in environments as different as beneath Artic snow, on salt spray-showered seashores and windswept mountain rocks and in tropical rainforest. An estimated 6% of the Earth’s land surface is covered by lichen species.2 Some are long-lived and include the longest-living things on Earth. There are species that require nothing to cling to while others can live inside rock, in the spaces between grains.3 In Ireland, 1,134 separate species of lichen have been recognised, according to the National Biodiversity Data Centre – i.e over 5% of Earth’s estimated total species right here on this little island.4

When we look at some growing on tree bark or rock, we are tempted to think of them as fungus, algae or even moss. Mosses are ancient enough life-forms and are plants, which algae are too and almost certainly much older. Fungi used to be considered plants but are so no longer and in their structure and digestion and also genes, are more akin and more closely related to animals. This will not be good news to vegetarians or vegans but the evidence is difficult to deny.5 Indeed there are some feoilséantóirí (word in Irish for a vegetarian and more apt in the context of this sentence) who already dislike eating many fungi because the texture reminds them of meat.

But lichens are neither fungi nor plants.

White and Map Lichen on rock, Old Kenmare: Killarney Rd Kerry. (Photo source: WikiIreland)

 

Lobaria Pulmonoria lichen, a leafy type, Killarney National Park (photo sourced from Internet)

So if lichens are not plant or fungus, what are they? Another kind of life-form? Well yes … and no. They are a combination of both, fungus and plant. At some point in the evolution of life on earth, logically after plants and after fungi had evolved, somehow some species of fungi combined with some species of alga and/or cyanobacteria6 and produced a symbiont or biont: lichen. Scientists maintain that the 20,000 estimated species did not evolve from one common ancestor but that different species appeared separately at different times during the history of the Earth.

Teloschistes chrysophthalmus on branches (image sourced from Internet)

Another map algae (Geographicus) on rock, a species that in a test has survived exposure to space vacuum and radiation, apparently unharmed. (Image sourced Internet)

Plants draw their nutrients from sun and elements in the soil (or in some cases, in the water). Fungi, like animals, cannot get their nutrients straight from sun or soil and need to break down their alimentation materials, whether flesh or plant, in order to feed on them. In doing so, fungi are important decomposing agents – in fact, the principal ones.

Vascular plants need roots not just to cling to soil but even more importantly, to draw up water and nutrients but algae don’t; when they have any kind of roots, it is to cling to a surface and that is exactly what the lichen needs too. Fungi extend and feed through root-like growths usually under the surface of what they are feeding upon, extending from the tips; they are not roots, however and break off easily. What we see of fungi is usually the spore-bearing parts above the surface, often much the smaller part of the organism.

Plants seem to grow above ground also by elongating their tips but in fact are extending from further back, adding cells to cells to lengthen the body. All plants need a constant supply of water (cacti and succulents store water but still need to draw on the supply to live). Fungi need damp conditions. But when combined into lichens, the new species can live without water for a considerable time. So, a marriage, as they say, “made in Heaven” … or perhaps in a Hell, an environment of very dry and hot conditions alternating with the very wet and cold , where the newly-wedded ancient algae and fungi set out to build their homes.

Some lichens contain not only algae combined with a fungus but also a cyanobacterium; this partner is capable of fixing nitrogen extracted from the air and is a valuable addition to the menage-a-trois.

It has been remarked by some that the marriage of plant and fungus is not an equal one, is not true symbiosis, since the fungal partner or symbiote benefits more than does the algal. The algal symbiote produces sugar through photosynthesis and the fungus only chitin, or hard structure, it is argued. However, if both partners (or three) are content with the arrangement, is that not a happy marriage? More seriously, the fungal partner may contribute other factors to the symbiosis of which scientists are only just becoming aware – for example, chemicals to repel organisms attempting to graze on them and protection from the sun.

And scientists do not treat them equally either, since the species of lichen is always determined and named by them according to the species of fungus, not of the alga or bacterium.

COLOURS IN THE RAIN

Xantheria parietina (image sourced on Internet)

So, if the claim is that we see them all around us, where are they? They may be seen on slate roof-tops, in patches of roughly circular white (not to be confused with pigeon or seagull excrement, which may also be in evidence). Yellow or orange patches are typically seen on stone, as is a black or dark brown one by the seaside. A bright yellow-green one may be seen on fallen twigs or on tree-bark, as may also a tufted-form green one growing on rock or tree.

Alga and lichen on plane tree during rain, Drumcondra, Dublin. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The colours tend to be particularly vivid during or soon after rain when the cortex becomes translucent and, if there were no other reason to be grateful for the precipitation levels usual in Ireland, that would be reason enough, perhaps, should we take the time to admire the little things of beauty. Of course there are other reasons and as a Basque once said to me about the green of his native country and could perhaps even more accurately said about colour associated with the “Emerald Isle” — “It’s not green because we paint it.”

Some of the bright colours in lichens, produced by the fungus, are thought to be of use in protection from the rays of the sun and become more vivid after rain due to rapid absorption of water by the chlorophyl-holding part of the symbiont (or biont).

PIONEERS AND SURVIVORS

Lichina pygmaea – a black marine littoral species, this one photographed near the high-water mark. (Image sourced on Internet)

Lichens are considered “pioneer organisms” by botanists and geologists, i.e organisms that set out to colonise new territories. These maybe new territories in the sense that a geological change has exposed them to air, e.g from the seabed or from under ice, or from inside the earth by volcanic action or by tectonic plate collision.

Pioneer organisms need to be tough and adaptable and they often create footholds for other species, not quite so tough or adaptable, to follow after. However, given that logic dictates that algae and fungi existed before some of them combined to form lichens, the latter could not have been among the earliest colonisers of the Earth’s crust. On Earth then, they are later pioneers of newly-created inhospitable terrain.

May they be used to help create habitable environments elsewhere? It’s perhaps worth quoting these two paragraphs from Wikipedia in their entirety:

In tests, lichen survived and showed remarkable results on the adaptation capacity of photosynthetic activity with the simulation time of 34 days under Martian conditions in the Mars Simulation Laboratory (MSL) maintained by the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

The European Space Agency has discovered that lichens can survive unprotected in space. In an experiment led by Leopoldo Sancho from the Complutense University of Madrid, two species of lichen — Rhizocarpon geographicum7 and Xanthoria elegans — were sealed in a capsule and launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket 31 May 2005. Once in orbit, the capsules were opened and the lichens were directly exposed to the vacuum of space with its widely fluctuating temperatures and cosmic radiation. After 15 days, the lichens were brought back to earth and were found to be in full health with no discernible damage from their time in orbit.

Hieroglyphics lichen (Graphis scripta) on rock, Castle Coole, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, October

Cladonia coccifera and Cladonia diversa or Pyxidata on branch in Ireland (also known as Pixy Cup and Devi’s Matchstick but “Pixy” sounds unlikely for a name in Ireland, more likely from Cornwall or elsewhere in south-west Britain).

In some areas, soil lichens help to bind the sand-crust or soil-crust together but lichens have also been shown to chemically attack stone, thereby helping to create soil. Lichens can also help create little environments where soil may be retained and seeds of plants germinate. However, like all species, lichens are out to help themselves and some produce chemicals to restrict the march of mosses (another pioneer species but more water-reliant), with which lichens would have to compete in many areas).

When growing on tree bark, lichens do not parasitise on the tree nor harm it in any way, merely using it as a secure base. Older trees are often covered with lichen and dead trees or branches more so, associating in some people’s minds the ill-health in a tree with the growth of lichen upon it. Circumstantial evidence may suggest the guilt of the lichen but it is completely a case of coincidence: lichen is slow-growing and the older the tree, the more time lichen has had to grow and extend upon it; the tree dies because it grows old.

Green Beard lichen, Usnea species, Cornwall (photographer: Jonathan Billingsworth). Usnea is very vulnerable to polution, particularly sulphur dioxide and will only grow like this when well away from such pollutants.

Lichen-covered apple tree (sourced: Irish Image Collection)

The lichen will survive the dead tree for a period but it is not the killer. Now come decomposers: insects, snails, slugs and especially, distant relatives of the lichens: fungi. Without concern for their relatives, the fungi, along with the other decomposers, will reduce the tree to soil ingredients and thereby deprive the lichens of their base but, in time, providing more soil for more trees to grow and for new generation of lichens to attach themselves to the bark.

The fungus is not too discriminating and a particular species may combine with different algae species; the resultant lichens may appear to be different species but (since 2014) will be classified as the same lichen species, i.e containing the same species of fungus.8

The alga can also exist independently in nature but the fungi cannot. Two species in two genera of green algae are found in over 35% of all lichens, but can only rarely be found living on their own outside of a lichen.9

A green frond-lichen, Evernia prunastri
(Image sourced at Internet)

Sex and Reproduction

It is only the fungal part of the symbiote that reproduces sexually. When doing so, it produces spores (as do ferns and mosses) which must find a compatible alga in order to produce a new lichen, a symbiote of the fungus of the parent fungus and a new alga.

Some lichens reproduce or extend asexually, advancing across a surface and merging with another of the same species.

Uses of lichens:

When we discuss “the use” of some thing we generally mean its use for humans; lichens no doubt have many uses for other organisms, whether as food for reindeer during non-growing seasons or as micro-environments for tiny creatures. But for humans, the uses are mostly in the areas of

  • dyes

  • drugs

  • environmental indicators

  • geological age indicators

Dyes and Pigments:

Dyes were made from the orange Xanthoria Parietina and the grey-green branched Parmelia Saxitillis to dye wools used in traditional tweed (Harris) weaving in the Scottish Highlands10 and I myself have had the second of the two pointed out to me by an Aran Islander woman as the source for the rarely-used green wool knitted into a geansaí (pullover or jumper). Material for other natural dyes exist for example in Ireland but the issues are how easily they are obtained, how true they dye and how long they remain the desired colour and shade.

“There are reports dating almost 2000 years old of lichens being used to make purple and red dyes. Of great historical and commercial significance are lichens belonging to the family Roccellaceae, commonly called “orchella weed” or “orchil”. Orcein and other lichen dyes have largely been replaced by synthetic versions.”11

We know that red and purple dyes were much sought after and in some medieval civilisations the wearing of those colours was restricted to certain social classes and even to one individual (e.g the purple for the Emperor). Once Europeans had gained familiarity with indigenous civilisations of Central and South America, the red dye obtained from the parasitic cochineal insect Dactylopius coccus became an important export product to Europe until the late 19th Century, when synthetic pigments and dyes were invented. Despite this development, traditional hand-made textile producers, for example in regions of Mexico, continued to use cochineal dyeing. However, health concerns associated with some or all of those synthetic colourings in food have once again created a demand for cochineal and cultivation of the insect is once again economically viable, with Peru being currently the main exporter.12

Drugs and Medicine:

There is reason to believe that metabolites produced by lichens may have antibiotic effects and usnic acid, the most commonly-studied metabolite produced by lichens, is being investigated as a possible bactericide, in particular against Staphylococcus and E.coli.13

Lichens were also used in European traditional medicine, in particular based on the theory that plants that resembled human organs would be efficacious in treatment of illness of those organs. Some American Indigenous people also used them in traditional medicine treatment.

Lichens as Indicators of Geological Age and of Pollution Levels:

The science of lichenometry is a relatively new one in which measuring the type and size of lichen is used to indicate the age of exposed rock. It takes the known slow growth-rate of different lichens to arrive at an estimate of how long the rock in question has been exposed. This can be used on rock formations, landslides, stone buildings and statuary.

The tolerance (or lack of tolerance) of different species of lichen to certain types of air and rain pollutant can be used as bio-indicators. In general the “frond” or “bushy” types are less resistant to some air pollutants and the flat or “crusty” types more so. Lichens take their water from the surfaces to which they are attached and from the air and are therefore quickly affected by the water quality in rain and air.

In Conclusion:

Readers may find it worthwhile to take some time to examine the lichens growing around us, to think about their unusual ‘domestic arrangements’ and their pioneering habits. Or to inventory them as indicators of the level and content of pollution in a specific area.

And in particular, to put on rainproof or resistant clothing and to view lichens during rainfall or at least very soon afterwards.

End.

 

Links:

http://www.irishlichens.ie/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lichen

http://www.biodiversityireland.ie/projects/biodiversity-inventory/taxonomic-groups/lichens/

http://www.habitas.org.uk/lichenireland/

http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/homes-and-property/gardens/loving-lichen-1.1970168

Fungi closer to animals than plants (very short articles):

https://www.scienceabc.com/nature/how-are-mushrooms-more-similar-to-humans-than-plants.html

https://www.naturalnews.com/044200_fungi_animals_plants.html

http://www.brighthubeducation.com/science-homework-help/8061-relationship-between-animal-plant-and-fungi-phylogeny/

About Algae and Cyanobacteria:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microalgae

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algae

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyanobacteria

About Cochineal and Social Rank by colour:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochineal

http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/clothing-and-social-status

http://renaissanceclothing.blogspot.ie/2011/02/meaning-of-renaissance-and-medieval.html

http://www.libraryireland.com/Brehon-Laws/Classification-Society.php (last paragraph in this section)

About Drugs from Lichens:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usnic_acid

About Lichens as Environmental and Geological Age Indicators:

See the Wikipedia article on lichens, also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lichenometry

https://staff.concord.org/~btinker/gaiamatters/investigations/lichens/lichens.html

http://www.air-quality.org.uk/19.php

https://myscienceblast.com/myscienceblast/dating-landslides-with-lichen/

 

Footnotes:

1See Wikepedia link to article on Lichens.

2Ibid (as above).

3Ibid.

4See link to Biodiversity Data Centre website.

5See Science ABC link for example.

6A primitive plant form that used to be called blue-green algae; they are believed to have been their first mass oxygenator of the planet Earth.

7This species, also known as “the map lichen” is common enough on rocks in upland areas of Ireland and Britain (see articles on Lichens).

8See Wikipedia article on Lichens (link below).

9Ibid

10Ibid

11Ibid

12See Wikipedia link on Cochineal

13See Wikipedia link on Lichens, Medicinal use and the Wiki link on Usnic acid.

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THE FLIGHT OF THE UNDERGROUND QUEEN

Diarmuid Breatnach

                                                          They had been preparing for this for some time. The infants were selected, received special care and food and were raised carefully in the Palace chambers inside the Citadel. They were now adolescents, maturing sexually. As the time approached for their great expedition, the tunnels leading to the departure terminal were widened and cleared of all obstructions. Experts tested the weather conditions daily and, when the majority of these were in agreement, the Queen gave the order to launch.

The adolescents took off then, a great host of them, amidst great excitement. Their pheromones, male and female, filled the air around them and those who could, which was most of them, quickly found a partner and coupled. It was a maiden flight from which the adolescent females would land no longer maidens.  

Those who would land, that is.  For suddenly the air was filled with giant flying monsters with huge eyes and giant whirring wings.  Much more accustomed to flight, these monsters flew among them, gobbling them up.  Some even held rows of their hapless victims in their huge beaks as they flew off to feed them to their young.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of the little flyers perished in minutes. 

Those who managed to land safely and didn’t end up drowning in a lake or a river, or snapped by denizens of the deep who sprang up at them as they passed overhead, or caught in sticky webs, or who were not stamped carelessly to death by huge walking giants or flattened by roaring, stinking monsters, still had to contend with smaller predators on the ground. The casualty rate was huge but some made it alive – some always did.

The males who made it down to ground safely would all die within a couple of days. Their wings were only intended for their nuptial flight; on the ground, they were nothing more than a nuisance, impeding their progress over and underground.

The females, sexually sated and no longer interested, had left their male partners behind. They bit off their own wings, ate them and, quickly finding some reasonably soft ground, began to dig. Each one dug down as though her life depended on it, which of course it did; and not only her own life – each one was pregnant. Then she blocked the entrance to her tunnel, went back down it, excavated a chamber and began to lay eggs. It was completely dark down there but she had been reared in darkness – she had one day of daylight only, the day she flew.

The young grubs who hatched were all females. She supplied them with some sparse nutrition from herself and cared for them as they grew, shed skin, grew … until they spun a cocoon from which they emerged as very small worker ants. They were infertile workers and tended to their large mother, their Queen; even when they were fully-grown she was still one-and-a-half times their size, although about half the size she had been when she left her old nest. Her most recent meal had been her own wings the day she had flown and mated. If she got past this crucial stage, she would recover her size and weight and lay more and more eggs.  

The workers soon went up the tunnel, unblocked it and spilled out into daylight for the first time in their lives, beginning to forage for food. They found small seeds and, if they were lucky, sweet material such as soft-skinned ripe or rotting fruit. They soon had their surroundings covered with their hive-scent, carried by each and every worker. Sometimes they found insects they could kill but these had to be very small indeed – these workers had been fed on insufficient nutrition and were, compared to the majority of their kind, puny. If they found a food-source worth another visit, they left a specially-scented trail on their way back to their home, to guide theirs sisters back to the prize later. A rich source of food typically would show two streams of traffic between their nest and the food – one emptyjawed heading for the food and the other, with pieces in their jaws, heading away from it and towards the nest.  The food gathered by the workers fed them and their Queen, while she continued laying eggs.  As time went by, more and more workers were born, who would care for the hundreds of eggs their matriarch laid and raise more and more workers.  Extensive tunnel networks were dug.

At some point the workers found aphids and began harvesting their sugary secretions; tending them on the stems of the plants the aphids infested and carrying them down to their citadel but bringing them back up later. The workers would fight to protect the aphids from those who preyed on their ‘herds’.

Successive generations of ant workers grew bigger, until they reached the optimum size of five milimetres (still four millimetres short of the Queen in her prime). A well-established citadel could in time house as many as 40,000 individuals (although between four and seven thousand would be more common) – they, and previous generations, all daughters of the same mother and the product of one mating only. Their Queen, barring unusual disasters, might live to 15 years of age.

Once the citadel is built, it is vulnerable in the ordinary course of things only to parasites, flood, fire and severe surface disturbance. In Ireland, without bears, wild boar and largely without foraging pigs, severe surface disturbance is unlikely away from human construction or ploughing and digging. Fire might not reach underground but the heat generated or the lack of oxygen might kill anyway; flood, of course, would be the biggest threat. If a citadel should be uncovered or invaded by flood waters, some workers will rush to deal with the problem while others rush to save the young, trying to carry eggs, pupae or cocoons away in their jaws to a safe place. Some others will rush to do whatever they can for their Queen. A black ant defends itself by running away if possible and if not, by biting. But intruders to the citadel are swarmed by biting ants. However most human skin is impervious to the bite and this species does not sting.

Black Ant nest under a stone, disturbed. Ant larvae and pupae visible as the workers rush to take them to safety.

Black Ant nest under a stone, disturbed. Ant larvae and pupae visible as the workers rush to take them to safety.

One day, perhaps three years from the Queen’s maiden flight, she will decide it is time to send her own children into the wider world.  She will lay eggs and have these emerging grubs fed special food, which will produce males for the first time in her citadel, as well as other fertile females besides herself.  Then, one day in July or in August, she will send them out too, to start new colonies.  

Lasius niger, the Black or Garden Ant, is the most common of the 21 species of ant in Ireland. It is the most common also across Europe and a sub-species, L. neoniger, is known in the USA where however, it is not one of the most numerous ant species. Lasius niger is a very active, hardy and adaptable species, living mostly outdoors under rocks and but rarely inside houses (although it may well enter houses repeatedly if it learns of food within, especially sweet food). In cities, its nests are to be found in parks and gardens but also under street paving stones, the workers emerging to forage from tunnels leading to the joints between the stone. When those joints are surrounded by thin lines or small heaps of bright sand in summer, one knows that the workers are clearing the tunnels for the adolescents’ flights. Another indication is an unusual amount of

Black ants, emerging from under their nest. The larger winged ones are fertile and, if they survive, future queens. The winged males are much smaller and all are doomed.

Black ants, emerging from under their nest. The larger winged ones are fertile and, if they survive, future queens. The winged males are much smaller and all are doomed.

seemingly erratic ant activity around a nest, though one would need to be aware of what normal activity looked like, for comparison. The ants may delay, awaiting what they judge to be optimum conditions but someday soon, mid to late afternoon, they will take to the air, to fly, to mate, to die or to live, to start a new population.

End

AN SEAMRÓG — THE THREE-LEAVED PLANT

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

The Shamrock, contrary to expectations, cannot be said to be a specific plant. It is of course a kind of clover but which one? People writing about it frequently state that it is generally accepted that the most likely candidates are the species Trifolium dubium (lesser clover; Irish: Seamair bhuí), with yellow flowers or the white-flowered Trifolium repens (white clover; Irish: Seamair bhán).  But which one?  Well, excuse the pun but take your pick.

Trifolium dubium, the lesser clover, an seamair bhán, top of the candidate list for the “shamrock” title.
(Photo: Internet)

 

Generally accepted by whom? One supposes by botanists and Irish folklorists but those sites rarely supply a reference. However, amateur botanist and zoologist Nathaniel Colgan (1851-1919) asked people from around Ireland send him specimens of what they believed to be an Irish shamrock and identified the five most common plant species, of which the two most common were the yellow clover followed by the white. A hundred years later, Dr Charles Nelson repeated the experiment in 1988 and found that yellow clover was still the most commonly chosen. According to Wikipeida, yellow clover is also the species cultivated for sale in Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day and is the one nominated by the Department of Agriculture as the “official” shamrock of Ireland.

The word “shamrock” is an Anglic corruption of the Irish seamróg, itself a contraction of seamair óg, meaning a sprig of young clover. The Irish shamrock is usually the species Trifolium dubium (lesser clover; Irish: seamair bhuí), with yellow flowers or the white-flowered Trifolium repens (white clover; Irish: seamair bhán).

A trawl through the internet looking for images of shamrock plants throws up a bewildering multiplicity of images of trefoil plants, the only thing they have in common being that they are (mostly) green. It soon becomes apparent that many of the images are taken from a different genus, that of oxalis, usually the one named wood-sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) in English-speaking Europe1.

People today should know better. Edmund Spenser, an anti-Irish colonist and commentator on Irish culture, also poet and ancestor of the late Princess Diana, reported the Irish eating shamrock and so have some other colonial observers but almost certainly what they observed was the Irish eating the wood-sorrel – in Ireland it has some common names associated with eating. Spenser and other colonists can be blamed for many things but not that confusion – they were not botanists and did not have access to the Internet. Also, seamsóg, the Irish name for wood-sorrel, does sound a bit like seamróg, especially if one is not listening carefully. The confusion can be continued in English, where the common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) is a completely different plant and a common enough culinary one.

Many species of the genus oxalis close their leave sand flowers at night – a handy trick which the trifolii do not have; indeed, try as they may, trifolii could not possibly close their flowers since each one is in the form of a cluster, while those of oxalis tend to be trumpet-shaped.

Wood Sorrel — defintely not the shamrock, despite numerous claims since Edmund Spenser, the Elizabethan poet.
(Photo: Internet)

The wood-sorrel grows typically in woods which are shady but not too dark and is characterised, as with many other oxalis, by an acidic taste in the stems. As children in the area in which I grew up in south Co. Dublin we chewed the stems of a cultivated species with large green leaves and pink flowers, commonly grown in window-boxes and gardens and known to us by the name of “Sour Sallies”.

The shamrock (both varieties of trifulium) grows best in meadows receiving a fair amount of sunlight, in among grasses. It belongs to the clovers, a different family completely from oxalis, belongin in turn to a very large group of plants in as different in appearance from one another as peas and beans on the one hand and furze (also known as gorse) on the other (but many bearing fruit pods). They are the legume group, plants that concentrate nitrogen in nodules around their roots, making many of them good crops with which to precede plants that require a lot of nitrogen, such as the cabbage family or cereals.

The expression “in the clover” as an idiom for being successful or having a good time alludes to the alleged fondness of grazing animals for the plants but this is much more likely to be the white clover, Trifolium repens (Irish: seamair bhán) than dubium, as the former grows bigger and thicker. Clovers are important plants not only for grazing animals and nitrogen-fixing but also for bee-keepers, being rich in nectar and pollen.

End

 

FURTHER READING

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trifolium_repens

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trifolium_dubium

http://slowfoodireland.com/food/foraging/wild-sorrels/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxalis

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathaniel_Colgan

 

FOOTNOTES

1 In North America, Oxalis montana is also called “common wood sorrel”.

RIVAL MANDARINS FIGHTING IN DUBLIN

Cycling through Griffith Park off the Mobhi Road, after a walk in the nearby Botanic Gardens, a flurry of wings and a flash of colours attracted my attention.  Three birds came down with a splash into the Tolka.

Rival males and female on a rock in the Tolka.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

You don’t need to be any kind of expert to identify the Mandarin Duck, especially the males and that’s what two of those birds were.  The dowdier third one was the female.

I have often noted two male mallard ducks peacefully accompanying one female and wondered whether they had a menage-a-trois going or what the arrangement was.  But there was nothing like that going on with the Mandarins as the males made clear quite quickly.  After briefly circling around one another they were quickly into fisticuffs (or beak-and-wing-cuffs), scuffle-splashing, clucking insult or challenge, until the rival to the established male would take to the wing either for a break or to get next to the female.  In the latter case, the male would take to the air also, in pursuit.

The female?  She swam demurely apart waiting for the victor.

The female Mandarin Duck in the Tolka.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

There was clearly one established male who for the moment was the dominant one but the rival kept coming back while I was watching and they were still at it when I left.  The established one has the psychological dominance factor on his side, which is a strong advantage but it is by no means a guarantee of success.  The rival might wear him down.  Or the established one might become injured.  Being a male and keeping one’s bird is not easy.

Rivals circling briefly in mid-water prior to another scuffle on the river.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

According to Charles Darwin, genders of many species but many birds in particular have become colour-differentiated through part of the evolutionary process described as sexual selection (The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871).  This has reached amazing and one might say even bizarre though beautiful extremes with such birds as the peacock and the bird of paradise.

Darwin’s ideas make more sense than other explanations being proposed but it is nevertheless hard to credit that a female’s appreciation of colour, shape and behaviour would so impress upon the male the need to flaunt gaudy colour and shape in direct contravention of the need to survive predators by NOT calling such attention to himself.  Still, there is no other viable contender explanation around (as distinct from the Mandarin contender, who may still be biding his time or pressing his suit, which if the established male has anything to say about it, is all he is going to press).

Established male with female on rock and the rival that won’t give up. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Aix galericulata is the Latin species name and the only other species in the Aix genus is the North American Wood duck.  A chromosome in the Mandarin makes hybridisation between the two impossible.

Mandarin Ducks originate in East Asia but have been kept in Europe in aviaries and in ponds and lakes.  Stephens Green used to have some, along with many other kinds of wildfowl, until the OPW allowed the Herring Gulls to take over to the extent that they have.  I have not seen them do it but would not be in the least surprised if the gulls ate the chicks of many of the waterfowl species until they died out or took off somewhere else.

However, there have been feral Mandarin populations in Ireland for some time, notably in Co. Down and in Wexford and pairs may be establishing themselves in other places, including in the Glasnevin/ Drumcondra area, based around the Tolka (and perhaps the Royal Canal).

The Mandarin is a perching duck and this kind have feet capable of grasping a branch.  They build their nests in hollows in trees which is good for the safety of the nesting female and the eggs.  But what of the chicks or ducklings?  As we know, ducklings take to the water long before they can fly.  So what can these ducklings in tree hollows, many feet from the ground, do?  They simply jump.  A veritable leap into the unknown.

When they hit the ground, which at first sight seems to ensure they have broken practically every bone in their little bodies or a least concussed themselves and messed up their insides, they bounce a little, get up and waddle to their mother.  Yes, she called them out, which is why they came.

One needs to see the process to believe and I have included some Youtube links.  It would seem at first that they need soft leaf litter or water in which to land but one of the links I have posted shows Mandarin ducklings jumping from a nestbox on to bare stone — and getting up, apparently unhurt.  It is difficult to understand, even with accounting for the relationship of weight to surviving a fall.  We probably know that we can drop lots of insect species on to the ground and they don’t get hurt but the principle goes farther — apparently a mouse can survive a fall from a great height (unless a hawk gets it on the way down, or a cat is waiting below); conversely a fall of four foot on to its feet can kill an elephant (so it is said — I have not actually tried this with elephants but I have inadvertently confirmed the mouse theory).

Often invasive species should not be welcomed as they upset the natural ecological balance.  The grey squirrel in the nearby Botanic Gardens, originally from the USA, may be cute but it is helping to wipe out the native red species.  And that’s just one of the invasive species of animal and plant that are causing problems in Ireland (see https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2014/07/01/the-scent-of-intruders/).  On the other hand, the widely-distributed Red Valerian (also with white and pink varieties) does not seem to be causing any problems and it is difficult to see how the Mandarin can become a serious problem either.  But of course, one does not know for sure.  It can be stated that the populations so far established in Britain and in Ireland do not seem to have caused any ecological problems.  And it is true that we don’t have many dense woods in Ireland anywhere (thanks to certain human invaders in our history), least of all close to slow-flowing water, although some species have shown remarkable adaptability, witness in these climes the rat, fox, pigeon, herring gull and, of course, homo sapiens.

One of the curious things about the Mandarin is the name we have for it.  Apparently, it is a Portuguese word for the Chinese government bureaucrats in existence when the Portuguese first began to trade with them (before they and other Europeans decided to invade China and confiscate areas, in particular ports and islands).  How they became associated with the duck was not revealed in my short internet search.

However, in China and in Korea the mandarin duck is associated with fertility, good fortune and constancy in monogamy, so that it is often presented as a wedding gift, either as living pairs or symbolically in an ornament.  It is not currently considered an extermination-threatened species.

End.

 

Video links (second one is of merganser ducklings and is even more impressive):

https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php

Other information sources:

Mandarin duck unlikely invader | Irish Examiner

21 Facts on Mandarin Duck – Tweetapedia – Living with Bird

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandarin_duck

 

 

 

CONVERSATION WITH A SPIDER – Part 2

Diarmuid Breatnach

(NB: This may be read on its own or following CONVERSATION WITH A SPIDER PART 1 https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2016/12/20/conversation-with-a-spider/ to which it is related)

You again!

“What do you mean ‘you again’ ?

“I put you out the window the other day.

Short-Bodied Cellar Spider in Bathroom (Flash Photo: D.Breatnach)

Short-Bodied Cellar Spider in Bathroom, flash shadow giving double effect (Photo: D.Breatnach)

“Wasn’t me. Nope. Might’ve been my brother – looks a lot like me. Or my sister.

“It was definitely a male.

“You can tell, can you?

“Yes. I’ve done some reading about spiders.

“Well, I had lots of brothers.

“You’re building one of those crazy, haphazard webs all over my bathroom wall again.

“This is a beautiful web. Made of beautiful fine silk – but also very strong. It is a tribute to our ancestral goddess, Arachne.

“Arachne was an accomplished weaver of beautiful rugs.

“Exactly.

“This, however, is a haphazard mess.

“To your two human eyes. You have to see it through our eyes – all eight of them. You have to feel its vibrations …. the air currents flowing through it like music …. the vibrations of a trapped fly …. like …. like …

“Like a dinner gong.

“Crude …. but, well, yes.

“You remember catching a fly, do you?

“Of course.

“When?

“Recently. Quite recently. You don’t think I’m starving, do you?

“No but I know spiders can live a lonnnnng time without eating.

“And you know this how?

“ Reading. In particular, Compton’s The Life of the Spider.

“ A voyeur.

“ What did you call me?

“Not you – him. And it was John CRompton, not Compton.

“Oh, right. You told me that before.

“Not me – maybe one of my brothers. And it was just The Spider, without The Life of, which was the title of Jean Henri Fabre’s book.

“Ok. But why did you call Crompton a voyeur?

“He watched the mating of spiders …. watched the goings-on for HOURS.

“He was a naturalist – he watched it so he could write about it.

“A voyeur and a pornographer.

“Writing about animals mating isn’t pornography! David Attenborough did a whole series on animal mating.

“He’s another one! And he did it with hidden cameras!

“Pornographic filming or writing is depicting sexual acts with the intention of sexually arousing and titillating the watcher or reader.

“And?

“Humans are not going to get sexually aroused watching or reading about animals mating.

“Are you sure? Really? ‘Her heart beat faster … she could smell the stallion …. he looked so strong, his coat so shiny …. she couldn’t help herself, she was firing off pheromones ….. he moved powerfully, muscles rippling …. he was sniffing her right there! …. she could feel his breath there! …. Oh! right where she was aching …. she felt herself melting …. he was going to mount her … yes! Yes! …

“Ok, ok. You’ve made your point. Cough! But going back to the issue of your web …

“My beautiful, complex web.

“Your haphazard, wandering, dust-collecting web.

“My efficient, fly-catching web.

“You’re not catching any flies.

“Not yet … but I will. If you leave my web alone.

“No. You’re going out the window.

“You’re angry and you’re projecting again.

“What did you say?

“Er … I said ‘You’re projecting’. It means …..

“I know what it means, thanks. You said ‘again’.

“Did I?

“Yes, you did. You said ‘You’re projecting again’. As though we had this conversation before.

“You’re building a whole web from a thread.

“I knew it was you again. You’re going back out the window.

“I’ll bite you!

“Ooooh, I’m scared.

“You should be. Our species has the most potent venom of any spider in these islands and many abroad. That’s why we have a skull design on our back.

“Says who? The Web?

“No need to be sarcastic. It is a well-known fact. You can read about it in newspapers if you don’t trust the Internet.

“I have read about it and it says that your fangs are not long enough to penetrate human skin.

“Do you want to take that chance? DO you? MAKE MY DAY!

“I’ve thrown you and lots of your relations out the window and never been bitten. I think that story about powerful venom is one you and yours have been spreading yourselves. Probably on the Web, ha, ha, ha. Not one record of even a hospital admission for poisonous bite by the Short-Bodied Cellar Spider!

“The venom works so fast they don’t make it to hospital. And the deaths are put down to heart attack and other causes.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m really scared. OUT you go.

“Leave me alone! No! Uuff rmmm fff!

‘Bye now.

I’LL BE Baaaaack….!

End

CONVERSATION WITH A SPIDER — Part 1

Diarmuid Breatnach

Eh, what do you think you’re doing?

What does it look like I’m doing?

It looks to me very much like you’re destroying my home and my livelihood.

It looks to me like I’m destroying a dust-collecting web right beside my bathroom mirror. Which is why I’m destroying it. And I might just catch you and throw you out the window too.

“You are in a nasty mood, aren’t you? Anyway, I’d only come right back in again.

Short-Bodied Cellar Spider without web (Photo source: internet)

Short-Bodied Cellar Spider without web (Photo source: internet)

If a bird didn’t gobble you up. Or a bigger spider ….

Oooh, you ARE in a nasty mood!

Not really – just mildly irritated. You had to build it right beside my mirror, didn’t you!

Well, that’s where the light is.

And you need the light …. what for? To read your paper? To thread your needle?

“No need to be sarcastic. I don’t need it for anything except to catch flies – they’re attracted by the light.

Catch flies, is it? I haven’t seen you or any other spider here catch a fly in years.

Well, if you keep destroying our webs …

I’ve left some for months. Just how long does it take to catch a fly?

It’s an art …. you can’t rush it.

Yeah, right! I’ve killed hundreds of them in a month.

Yes, well, with chemical warfare ….

“Not at all! I mean with my hands or a damp cloth. Swipe, bam! One less fruit fly, or house fly, or bluebottle.

“Well, aren’t you the matador!

“What I mean is, I’ve killed hundreds of flies in the same time that you have killed none – and it’s supposed to be your defining characteristic: killing flies!

Who says?

Everyone.

Every human, is it?

Yes.

You’ve never asked the arachnids, have you though?

I try not to get into conversations with them. I’m having this one with you because a) I’m shaving near you and b) you’re bending my ear.

“Bending your ear? I haven’t touched you!

It’s an expression, a turn of phrase, for speaking a lot or complaining to me.

What’s that got to do with your ear?

“That’s what I hear with!

Really? You mean you don’t hear with your legs and body, like we do?

Of course not!

Wow! Peculiar!

You’re trying to change the subject. Spiders are supposed to catch flies – isn’t that the purpose of the web? Or are you going to claim it’s a work of art?

You don’t think my web’s artistic?

“Honestly? No. The orb-weavers’ webs now, they are artistic. But most others, including your species, the Short-Bodied Cellar Spider? No, not at all.”

“Well, we go more for function than artistic appeal.

“What function?

“Catching fli ….. er …

Yes, you see the problem? Your webs are supposedly for catching flies but all yours are catching is dust. Which is why I’m destroying them.

You’re projecting.

What?

Projecting. You have your failures, you feel angry about them so you project them on to me so you can express your anger more safely.

Where did you get hold of that shit?

On the Web.

Oh, very, very funny! Projection or not, it happens to be the truth. Your webs are not catching flies but they are collecting dust, so destroyed they will be.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave ….

“Funny! But that quote from Walter Scott is about deception. Since you are not an ant-mimicking spider, or a crab spider, or any other kind of deceiving spider, what are you talking about?

I’m referring to your self-deception. Anyway, how do you know about those other kinds of spiders?

I read Compton’s The Life of the Spider when I was a boy.

“It was John CRompton, not Compton.

“Oh, right.

“And it was just The Spider, without The Life of, which was the title of Jean Henri Fabre’s book.

“Whatever.  I read other stuff about spiders from time to time .. and watch them.  I’ve had Zebra Spiders jump from one finger to another in my hand.

“Humph! Zebra Spiders!  They don’t even build webs.

No, they don’t …. but here’s the thing ….

What?

They DO catch FLIES! And now, out the window you go.

No! Uuff rmmm fff!

‘Bye now.

I’LL BE Baaaaack….!

End.

THE SCREAM ON A DECEMBER NIGHT

 

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

A high-pitched but hoarse scream cuts through the night. Again and again it is heard, then is silent. A frightening sound, perhaps of a person being attacked …. But no, it is a vixen, a female red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Why is she screaming? Is she in pain?  Not exactly — she is informing dog-foxes in the area that she is ready to mate and where they can find her.

Vixen screaming (sourced on Internet)

Vixen screaming (sourced on Internet)

 

But this is December and, according to Internet site after site dealing with foxes in Britain and in Ireland, she is at least a month early1. Perhaps she is a rare exception, this vixen in the Drumcondra area but it seems to me more likely that the sites have it wrong: either urban foxes breed earlier or the breeding pattern of foxes is changing. Actually, a combination of both is likely.

A vixen breeding in January would give birth to her cubs just over 50 days later, when in rural areas the earth is warming up in the Spring and when lambs are born, hares are boxing, eggs are being laid, greens are growing and being eaten by rabbits – in other words, food is becoming available for the vixen. Obviously vixens breeding in February or March will have yet more food available in April or May but may also find greater competition, in food and for a mate.

Say this rural vixen conceived on 1st January, then she would give birth on or around 22nd February. She will need feeding just before that and probably up to 24th March, a task falling to the dog fox and to unmated young females who may be part of the community. The cubs need the warmth of the mother’s body for up to three weeks after birth and she cannot leave the den. One month after giving birth the mother vixen may go hunting while the “aunts” look after the cubs, who are now venturing out of the den or “earth” (but staying very close to it).

The food brought to the young is carried inside the hunters’ bellies and regurgitated for the young to consume along with their mother’s milk which they will suckle until six weeks of age. After weaning, the cubs will eat solid food but cannot yet hunt for it themselves until perhaps mid-late Summer and, if males, will leave to establish their own territories in the Autumn.2 Males become sexually mature at one year of age.

A vixen breeding in December in an Irish rural area might have difficulty receiving enough sustenance in January or even early February, especially in decades past when winters were usually harder. However, with changing seasonal weather patterns tending to warmer winters – and in urban areas where a lot of food tends to be available for scavenging all year round – these problems are substantially reduced and so breeding in December should present little difficulties. So the thinking goes among the vixens in Drumcondra, anyway and, I suspect, in many other Irish and British urban areas.

The male or ‘dog’ fox can be heard sometimes too in a staccato bark, normally three (but occasionally four) rapid barks: bak, bak, bak!

 

THE URBAN FOX

The urban fox is a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland3, as far as we know, although in Bristol, for example, they have been recorded since the 1930s. Up to fairly recently, a number of experts maintained that the fox populations of city and countryside had little contact with one another. But in January 2014 “it was reported that “Fleet”, a relatively tame urban fox tracked as part of a wider study by the University of Brighton in partnership with the BBC’s Winterwatch, had travelled 195 miles in 21 days from his neighbourhood in Hove, at the western edge of East Sussex, across rural countryside as far as Rye, at the eastern edge of the county. He was still continuing his journey when the GPS collar stopped transmitting, due to suspected water damage.”4

 

and the Country Foxes

Decades before I heard of this I often fancifully imagined a conversation between a fox, now settled in the “big city”, and his country relations when he returned on a visit. After the initial customary welcoming, sniffing, licking etc are over, the conversation might go like this:

So, Darkie, tell us, what is life like in the big city?”

Ah, it was scary at first, with cars and buses and lorries going all day. You wouldn’t believe the noise.”

(Sympathetic whine from the audience).

But I’m used to it now, Redthree, I have to say. And the food! You could not imagine!”

Good, is it?”

Lovely, Whitepatch, absolutely delicious.”

(Sounds of salivating all around).

Chicken, beef, lamb, fish, potatoes, bread, rice, vegetables, fruit – just left out there to be eaten!”

Ah, you’re havin’ us on, Darkie. We might be “Culchies” but we’re not stupid! You expect us to believe the humans feed you like they do their dogs, do you?”

No, of course not, Greymuzzle. Well, actually a few do leave out food on purpose for us but no, this is mostly food that humans are throwing away. We find it in plastic bags and metal containers.”

They throw away food?”

They do and huge amounts of it too. Then big lorries come and take away what we have not eaten ourselves.”

Where do they take it?”

I am not sure. I’ve never troubled to find out because, to be honest, I have all the food I need nearby.”

(Silence while country foxes imagine a huge mountain of food somewhere).

Er …. Darkie, so you never hunt now?”

Oh, yes, some – the city rats and mice eat the discarded food too and they grow plump and big. Yes, I catch and eat them too.”

Well now, what about all the humans?”

What about them, Lighteyes? They don’t bother us.”

Don’t the humans have guns in the city?”

Some of them do, Lighteyes. But they don’t shoot foxes with them.”

Really? What do they shoot with their guns then?”

Other humans, Lighteyes, just other humans.”

(Noises of amazement and disbelief)

 

THE INNER CITY FOX

The Internet sites all agree that foxes are more likely in suburbia than in the inner city but I think they ignore some important features of the inner city which foxes can frequent in relative safety and around which they are likely to find sufficient food: railroad lines and their banks, canal and river banks, parks, allotments, cemeteries and derelict sites. One can’t get much closer to Dublin’s inner city than Parnell Square, yet I have seen foxes in a laneway off there and also squeezing through the railings to enter the Garden of Remembrance. They have been photographed near the Irish Parliament, the Dáil (though some people might say that’s less surprising with the number of scavengers nearby :). I’d be surprised if they are not to be found along the banks of the Dodder, the Liffey, the Tolka and both canals, also along the railway lines and in Glasnevin and other cemeteries.

Fox in Leinster House car park in the winter of 2013 (Source: Sasko Lazarov via Photocall Ireland, reproduced in Journal.ie)

Fox in Leinster House (Irish Parliament building) car park in the winter of 2013 (Source: Sasko Lazarov via Photocall Ireland, reproduced in Journal.ie)

 

According to one Internet site5, the urban fox population in Dublin may be growing too big for its own health, as the ready availability of food allows unhealthy individuals to exist, diseased and covered in mange infestation (mites that denude patches of fur). I would need to explore this argument before I could accept it.

I am familiar with the overpopulation argument in the case of grazing animals or rodents, where too many individuals consume the available resources and the whole population suffers – a fate usually occurring when natural predators are not present to thin out the weaker individuals and thereby unconsciously preserve the general population in a healthier state.

But how would this work with regard to Dublin foxes? It seems unlikely that the food available is being reduced yet and if and when it is, one presumes healthier foxes will outcompete their sicker species members. Also, sick and undernourished foxes are less likely to come into oestrous and should they do so and conceive, to be able to raise their young. It seems to me most likely that what is occurring is that foxes that would normally have been winnowed out in the struggle of survival are now able to sustain themselves, which might be distressing to see but which will not necessarily have any effect on the healthy population.6 And will healthy individuals necessarily succumb to mange infection from infested individuals? And if they do now, might they not in time learn to chase infected individuals away?

Theories of overpopulation and scare stories about foxes attacking babies, cats and so on seem prompted by the intention to cull foxes, as Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, proposed. Johnson seems unwilling to learn from history, as “there was a large and expensive effort to reduce the number of urban foxes across the UK in the 1970s, but the population subsequently bounced right back.”7 The average litter now may be four cubs but vixens have been known to bear up to a dozen and with a low population-to-high-food-sources ratio, are likely to bear a greater number of cubs. And a recent National Health Service survey in the UK indicated that nearly 60% of all stings and bites admitted to emergency rooms were inflicted by dogs8 but anyone suggesting a cull of urban dogs would probably find a gathering bearing pitchforks and burning torches outside their home.

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, was proposing a cull of London foxes (source photo: Internet)

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, was proposing a cull of London foxes (source photo: Internet)

There have been claims that foxes kill and eat lambs, cats, other domestic pets and poultry. Most experts have concluded that if indeed a fox killed a lamb, such incidents are very rare. A ewe is capable of protecting a lamb from a fox, an animal not much larger than a cat. However, foxes have been found to eat the afterbirths of lambs and would of course eat a stillborn lamb or one that died soon after birth, after which its mother would leave and the opportunist would move in; such incidents may have convinced some people in rural areas that the fox was the cause of the lamb’s death.

The Foxwatch study program in Bristol city filmed a number of confrontations between urban foxes and cats and found that in all cases, it was the fox that backed down. This makes sense, for a predator does not usually take on another predator of similar size except in defence of its young, its own life or, at times, its kill.

Yes of course foxes will kill poultry if they can get at them and are often accused in such situations of going on a killing spree. Foxes do kill and gather more food than they need at times and, like many other animals, hide it for recovery later, marking the spot with their scent. But when a fox breaks into a poultry pen and kills its inhabitants, it usually has to leave with what it can carry and will not be permitted to return for the rest. The answer for humans is to build secure pens into which to bring the poultry at night – and that applies also to rabbits kept as pets or for the table, etc. — or keep a dog outside, unleashed.

Scare stories and unscientific suggestions to one side, wild animal populations living alongside humans frequently do need management. All species of bats are protected in Ireland and Britain and should you find them in your attic you are not permitted to remove them but must instead notify the appropriate authorities. Some people have suggested that the red fox should be granted protected species status but it is difficult to see the rationale for this, since it is on the species of “least concern” list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Pigeons receive no protection and, though often fed by people who consider them cute or pretty, do have a negative effect on our urban environment and, in the case of seagulls, who are protected, may be responsible for the disappearance of the many species of ducks that once were common in Stephens’ Green. Rats and mice are not deliberately fed or considered cute by most people (though I have kept both myself and found the individuals tame and harmless and, in the case of rats, quite intelligent) and humanity wages war upon them with traps and poison.

Do urban foxes require management? Zoologist Dave Wall9, who has studied Dublin’s urban foxes for some years, thinks not. In his opinion, the fox population in Dublin has remained constant since the 1980s. According to statistics regularly quoted but never referenced that I can find, Dublin fox families occupy on average 1.04 Km². 10 Given a rough and probably low estimate of six individuals per fox family (a mated pair and two unmated females and two cubs) and a Dublin City area of 115 km² would give us a fox population of 663 in the city. That might seem a lot, until one hears that London holds an estimated 10,000.

Given statistics of that sort, and information that the average litter is of four cubs, one may wonder why most urban dwellers see them but rarely and also why urban foxes are not a massively growing population. There are a number of controlling influences, ranging from the need to establish territory and fight to hold it, which may cost in injuries or even death, to deaths by traffic, the most common cause of fox death according to Internet sites (although how often do we see a dead fox on the road?). A common non-captive life-span of from two to four years and a fertility “window” of only three days for a vixen would be population-controlling factors and yet the allegedly stable population is puzzling, to me at least.

The rural fox tends to inhabit, widening when necessary, burrows already excavated by rabbits and badgers. In urban areas, the fox may have to excavate its own – under buildings and sheds and into railroad banks, for example – but will also use and expand other holes and gaps.

Many urban human dwellers, probably most, never see urban foxes, although they are becoming increasingly visible. They are active mostly at dusk and shortly before dawn and are mostly likely to be seen by people who rise very early for work, or who work at night or who are returning from late night socialising on foot, by bicycle or on foot.

In the Lewisham area of South-East London where I lived for some decades, I regularly saw them on the roads while cycling home from a late music session or a friend’s house. Lewisham would be considered midway between being city and suburban in nature and contained parks, cemeteries, allotments, streams or rivers and railway lines, houses with gardens but also high-rise blocks of local authority housing and very busy roads. I once passed about three yards near to an adult fox on the housing estate I lived on for awhile between Grove Park and Eltham (also in SE London). On my allotment in Catford, if I worked until dusk (which I did often enough when I managed to find the time), they would come out and play and dig for food less than ten yards away from me. And I frequently found trainers (running shoes) and balls they had taken from outside local houses and gardens, discarded on my allotment.

A number of theories have been forwarded for the penetration of urban areas by the fox, including the shameful wiping out of rabbit populations by state-inflicted plagues of myxomatosis but the real reasons are probably the same as those of the pigeon, rat and mouse – availability of food and home provided by humans and the adaptability of the species themselves.

 

THE MOST WIDESPREAD CARNIVORE ON EARTH

Indeed, the red fox has proved an adaptable animal – much like ourselves. She is an omnivore, as are we and can take her prey from animals as large as a goose to those as small as beetles or earthworms, also frequently eating wild fruit, especially in the Autumn. Studies in the former Soviet Union found that up to 300 animal and a few dozen plant species were known to be consumed by her11. Mice and rats are frequently on her menu and her ancestors are thought to have developed as specialist rodent hunters in Eurasia five million years ago but her kind is now the most widespread carnivore on Earth, with 46 recognised subspecies.

The fox has binocular vision which is particularly effective at night, excellent hearing over distance, including the ability to detect the squeaking of mice at about 100 metres (330 ft) and capable of locating sounds to within one degree at 700–3,000 Hz, though less accurately at higher frequencies12, compensated for by an ability to hear at very low frequencies, including a rustle in grass or leaves and the burrowing of rodents underground. It has evolved many tactics for hunting, including tracking, ambush, stalking, leaping, pouncing and digging.

The fox can also run at a speed of 42 km/ hour, climb some trees, leap high and swim well. Considering the latter, its absence from many islands near to mainlands may come as a surprise but I think that is easy to explain through eradication by human agency.

The red fox is to be found everywhere in Europe (where she is thought to have reached 400,000 years ago) and in North America, Canada, China, Japan and Indochina. Sadly, in the mid-19th Century her species was introduced to Australia by European settlers (at first for sport and later perhaps to control the rabbit, also introduced there by Europeans), where a population of 7.2 million red foxes now is wreaking damage among rarer indigenous wildlife and is considered responsible for the extinction of a number of species. It is classified as the most harmful invasive species in Australia and eradication and population control measures are adopted against it there, as are also against feral domestic cats and dogs, also imported by Europeans.

The dingo is regarded as a controlling agent on red fox population growth in Australia though not totally effective due to the fox’s habit of burrowing; this is interesting for a number of reasons: firstly, the dingo (Canis lupus dingo) is itself a wild dog most likely imported from Asia by Aborigine settlers somewhere between 4,500 and 10,000 years ago and secondly, the red fox in Ireland and Britain does not tend to excavate its own burrows but rather to enlarge existing ones and then generally only for mating and rearing cubs. The Red Fox is currently absent from Iceland, Greenland, South America and sub-Saharan Africa.

The fox has been hunted by humans primarily for its fur, especially in winter when it is thicker and from foxes in the far north its silkiness is considered very valuable.

Reynard (one of the names traditionally given to the fox) has also been hunted for sport, usually by the aristocracy or country gentry, on horseback with hounds, an activity which gave rise to one of Oscar Wilde’s many memorable phrases: The English country gentleman galloping after a fox – the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.” Of course, it was not only the English who did this but also the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy (from which Wilde’s father himself came) and the upwardly-climbing Irish who aped them, ag sodar i ndiaidh na nuaisle.13 There have been numerous attempts to get fox-hunting banned and direct action such as protests and sabotage of hunts but it is still legal in Ireland and in Britain, though substantially reduced from a century ago.

Gamekeepers have also hunted the fox in order to keep it from killing ground-nesting birds such as wild pheasants, grouse and partridge, so that the landowner and his friends could shoot these birds down later14. Finally, the farmer has taken his toll, sending specially-bred dogs such as cairn terriers down earths to kill a hiding fox and in particular the cubs. The farmer wishes to protect his poultry but avoid the cost of building secure pens and so hunts foxes down; he could let his dogs roam his poultry area which would keep foxes away but dogs do often go chasing sheep too, which will also represent a loss to the farmer, either because the sheep are his or because his neighbours will claim compensation from him.

 

AN MAIDRÍN RUA and tradition

In Ireland, the fox was known as Sionnach, Madagh Rua (“red dog”) or Maidrín Rua (“little red dog”) and has given its name to a number of places, eg Cnoc an tSionnaigh (Fox Hill, Co. Mayo; another as a street name in Co. Laois); Oileán an tSionnaigh (Fox Island, Co. Galway); Carraig an tSionnaigh (Foxrock, Co. Dublin); possibly Léim an Mhadaigh, (Limavady, Co. Derry) and Lag an Mhadaigh (Legamaddy, Co. Down); possibly Ráth Sionnaigh (Rashenny, Co. Donegal), etc.15

Fox is also a family name and the Irish language version of it is Mac an tSionnaigh (literally “Fox’s son”).  The Maidrín Rua or Sionnach features in a number of songs in Irish and in English and here is one from the Irish language tradition of song but in a non-traditional choral arrangement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bJyqbPxTwU.

Widely represented in folklore from China to Ireland, the fox is also mentioned in the Old Testament Bible and in Greek stories such as the fables of Aesop as well as among the Indigenous people of the Northern Americas. He is never stupid but his intelligence or cunning is also often portrayed as devious, tricky and even malicious. On the other hand, let us not forget that the anti-feudal Mexican hero created by USA writer Johnston McCulley (February 2, 1883 – November 23, 1958), who fights for the downtrodden and indigenous people and mocks the Mexican aristocracy and large landowners, always escaping them, used the nom-de-guerre of “El Zorro”, the fox.

There is a sexual connection too in the representation for the fox: for example in English a “foxy lady” is one with a high level of sexual attraction and in Castillian (Spanish) a “zorra” (vixen) is a pejorative term for a woman trading in sexual favours or “of low morals”16. Have we come around in a circle to where we began, to the vixen’s scream? I think so, but loaded now with a patriarchal outlook. Men can openly want and enjoy sex, of course, that is natural – but a woman? Surely not … or, if she does, she must be bad!

 

End.

 

 

Internet Sources:

http://www.thejournal.ie/fox-urban-dublin-1537602-Jun2014/

http://www.newforestexplorersguide.co.uk/wildlife/mammals/foxes/family-life.html

http://www.wildlifemanagement.ie/dublins-urban-foxes/

http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/our-confused-relationship-with-foxes-cull-them-feed-them-hunt-them-kill-them-1.1251806

http://www.newsfour.ie/2013/04/city-fox-controversy/

http://www.noticenature.ie/files/enfo/factsheet/en/WL33%20Foxes.pdf

http://www.conserveireland.com/mammals/red_fox.php

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_fox

https://books.google.ie/books?id=GjK93IUdAX4C&pg=PA96&lpg=PA96&dq=fox+can+hear+low+frequencies&source=bl&ots=BdWCosvgXg&sig=z76bvVOGnUjEQMnGTf4w44mqTyU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjN-dOm7v7QAhXoKsAKHQtsCGcQ6AEILTAD#v=onepage&q=fox%20can%20hear%20low%20frequencies&f=false

 

Footnotes:

1This is one of the very few sites to state that breeding may start in December http://www.newforestexplorersguide.co.uk/wildlife/mammals/foxes/family-life.html and Wikipedia also gave December as the start of the mating season and also as the month when the dog-fox’s testes are heaviest.

2Young females may remain another season and help care for the next litter of cubs.

3Although one article, without giving a reference, stated that foxes have been in Dublin since Victorian times.

6Other feature which makes this claim suspect are a number of scare items in the article: a) the sensationalist reference to the alleged danger to a baby from a fox in a bedroom and a link to the article reporting this event. Such an event, supposing it occurred, must be on a level of likelihood way below the danger to babies from, for example, pet cats and dogs. Also b) the reference to the danger of contracting roundworm (Toxocara canis), which can cause toxocariasis in children, while not however mentioning how low that risk is and that infection for children is most likely to be encountered from dogs and cats.

9Dave Wall B.A. is a postgraduate researcher in zoology at UCD. He has studied otters, marine mammals and Alpine badgers as well as studying Dublin’s urban foxes for the past few years. He is a Director of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.

12Ibid

13“Trotting after the nobles”, a derogatory phrase in Irish.

14Gamekeepers in Ireland and Britain also shot, poisoned or trapped badgers, otters, pine martens, stoats, escaped mink, eagles, hawks, buzzards, crows and magpies and often hung their carcasses in near their lodges to display their diligence in their tasks

16Often the condemnation of “low morals” is applied to a sexually active female but not to a sexually active male.