A fossilised flower in amber – with its pollinator!

Fascinating article on, well, A Fossilised Flower In Amber With Its Pollinator.

Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

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There have been only a handful of occasions in my professional life when I’ve been sent a manuscript to review that has caused my jaw to hit the floor with amazement.  The last time it occurred was July 2016 when I received a request to review a study that claimed to have found a fossil flower in amber, with an associated pollinator.  Not only that, but the flower appeared to belong to a species of asclepiad (Apocynaceae subfamily Asclepiadoideae) – the plant group on which I have focused a good deal of my attention over the years.  Even better, the study was by George Poinar, the originator of the idea to extract DNA from amber-encased fossils, thus inspiring Jurassic Park.  George is also the author of two books (Life in Amber and Quest for Life in Amber) that made a big impression on me when I was a PhD student…

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Gola: The Life and Last Days of an Island Community


Recently I read this book, published in 1969 by Radio Telifis Eireann, on Gola Island. Gola is a mile from Magheragallon Strand in Gweedore, three miles from Bunbeg harbour.

When the book was written, Gola seemed about to be permanently depopulated. When I was young in the 80s and early 90s, it was supposedly depopulated, and yet in recent years the population has officially risen to 15 at the 2011 census (2016 census result awaited, I guess) and polling opens there, like the other islands, the day before the “mainland.”


This book, now nearly 50 years old, is itself something of a relic. It is very much a book of two parts; the first written by the TCD geographer F.H. Aalen, the second by the sociologist Hugh Brody. Both spent considerable time on the island, joining the various “intellectuals and semi-intellectuals” the boatmen describes as making the bulk of non-local Gola visitors.

Brody’s part gives an outline of the geographical context of the island and of the somewhat atypical rural life of the North West coast of Donegal. As he points out, and this was something I took for granted as a child but appreciate now, there is a paradoxical combination of remote isolation and relatively high population density in the strips of land along the coast of the Rosses and Gweedore (and to a lesser extent Cloghaneely) – a density bordering on urbanity at times.


Aalen’s writing comes acrosss as very dated. Words like primitive, neglected and backward recur regularly, without any contextualising. The words of “improving” landlords such as Lord George Hill are taken at face value. The evil of the “rundale” system, whereby land was subdivided and subdivided among families until unworkable plots remained, is presented as a straightforward matter of benighted local custom getting in the way of the obviously right, progressive thing to do. There is little real context, beyond an emphasis on isolation, as to why this system developed. Indeed, there is no sense that, in what is a harsh environment, that the local people may in fact have been highly adaptive in how they managed and coped.


There is a rather despairing tone to all this, and the sense is that a primitive way of life is, not without some sentimental regret perhaps, gradually fading away. Aalen is of course being  clear-eyed and realistic in many ways. He writes of how the economy of the area is dependent on remittances and seasonal work from Scotland. There is no doubt that, as contact with urban modernity increases, the traditional life of the islands declines. Aalen quotes the original Paddy The Cope testifying to an Oireachtas committee in the 1920s that, without remittances from Scotland, the economy of the Rosses would not last a year.


Things change quite considerably in Brody’s section on the sociology of the island. There is a certain wry humour here and more of a human sympathy with the islander’s point of view. Brody finds that elementary sociological facts, such as the actual population of the island, are hard to estimate. This is because life on the island is, and has always been, seasonal. Traces of this kind of transhumance remain not only in Gola but on the nearby mainland. My own family, to a certain degree, have engaged in it. Indeed, the rundale system of small plots divided by borders marked in memory and perhaps a wisp of wire of a fence also persists.

Brody finds that what would frustrate many investigators is actually one of the strengths and resilient features of the island. Indeed, he has a wonderful passage on how the islander’s stance is perfectly rational from their point of view. I don’t have the book to hand to quote it in full, but it conveys a much more open view than Aalen’s, and one which now, given that after some decades of depopualtion Gola is repopulated again, seems far more perceptive than Aalen’s very positivist view of human activity.

I have blogged before about how the decline of island life marks, not the irresistible march of progress, but a loss of a way of life, and therefore a loss of diversity. The irony of the rather self-congratulatory contemporary celebration of diversity is that all too often the diversity of ways of life and of living is receding; the diversity that is celebrated is a somewhat atomised one of individual or family existence in a more homogenised society overall.

I feel that my comments above on Aalen’s writing may be a little harsh, as the book overall is an enthralling read for anyone familiar with the area, or simply interested in island life and Irish sociology. It is also worth noting that this book, written nearly half a century ago, very much has an overall message that the days of a populated Gola were imminently over- it is after all subtitled “The Life and Last Days of an Island Community”-  and yet here we are in 2017 awaiting the 2016 census population of this island.

Bird Feeding Notes, mid April

A month on from the imaginatively titled “Bird feeding in Mid March” here are some random thoughts and observations on bird feeding in Mid April.

The mix of birds is roughly the same, with a predominance of finches. Many are notably less afraid of myself or my family, particularly juveniles. I worry that they may be getting too trusting of humanity. However, they flit nattily away when someone gets even semi-close.

It has been a time of change. Firstly, I no longer can get the King brand bird feed I favoured. So a range of others have been tried. Tesco’s own brand bird feed is not all that popular, and their sunflower hearts even less so. Sunflower seeds, however, are wildly popular. Peckish bird food’s brands have been tried to some success. Secondly, the bird feeding pole which helped to keep the food off the ground and the birds safe from their cat enemy, finally has given up the ghost during a children’s party. Perhaps it is time to buy or even make a “proper” bird table.


From “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries From a Hidden World”, Peter Wohlieben

Scent as a means of communication? The concept is not totally unfamiliar to us. Why else would we use deodorants and perfumes? And even when we’re not using these products, our own smell says something to other people, both consciously and subconsciously. There are some people who seem to have no smell at all; we are strongly attracted to others because of their aroma. … So it seems fair to say that we possess a secret language of scent, and trees have demonstrated that they do as well.


For example, four decades ago, scientists noticed something on the African savannah. The giraffes there were feeding on umbrella thorn acacias, and the trees didn’t like this one bit. It took the acacias mere minutes to start pumping toxic substances into their leaves to rid themselves of the large herbivores. The giraffes got the message and moved on to other trees in the vicinity. But did they move on to trees close by? No, for the time being, the walked right by a few trees and resumed their meal only when the had moved about 100 yards away.

The reason for this behaviour is astonishing. The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specially, ethylene) that signaled to neighbouring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there.

Similar processes are at work in our forests here at home. Beeches, spruce, and oaks all register pain as soon as some creature starts nibbling on them. When a caterpillar takes a hearty nibble out of a leaf, the tissue around the site of the damage changes. In addition, the leaf sends out electrical signals, just as human tissue does when it is hurt. However, the signal is not transmitted in milliseconds, as human signals are; instead, the plant signal travels at the slow speed of a third of an inch per minute.

The Labyrinth of Mr Price

The prospect of having a labyrinth in ones garden seems alluring, albeit, done properly, highly expensive. I have found an appropriately cheap and easy way of labyrinth building – using small €1.49 sections of fencing from Mr Price
These are flexible (ish), easy to insert into the soil, and allow for much experimentation. The results are not quite this from Castletownroche:

Or this from Glencomeragh

Or this from The Rock of Cashel

Well, actually, it looks a little better than the Rock of Cashel one.

It can’t hold a candle to the many many fine or fascinating or historic or mysterious or all of the above labyrinths easily found via a quick google, at sites such as Blog My Maze

But it is cheap, effective and mine.
All thanks to Mr Price.

From “The Secret Life of Trees: How They Live and Why They Matter”, Colin Tudge

Perhaps this is why we feel so drawn to trees. Groves of redwoods and beeches are often compared to the naves of great cathedrals: the silence; the green, filtered, numinous light. A single banyan, each with its multitude of trunks, is like a temple or a mosque – a living colonnade. But the metaphor should be the other way around. The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees. The trees are innately holy. Christians with their one omnipotent God may take exception to such pagan musings; but the totaras and the kauris were sacred to the Maoris, and the banyan and bodhi and the star-flowered temple trees (and many, many others) to Hindus and Buddhist, and the roots of this reverence, one feels, run back not simply to the enlightenment of Buddha as he sat beneath a bo tree (in 528 BC, tradition has it), but to the birth of humanity.

But Christianity did give rise to modern science. The roots of science run far back in time and from all directions – from the Babylonians, the Greeks, many great Arab scholars in what Europeans call the Middle Ages, the Indians, the Chinese, the Jews, and the much underappreciated natural history of all hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers everywhere. But it was the Christians  from the thirteenth century onwards, with an obvious climax in the seventeenth, who gave us science in a recognisably modern form. The birth of modern science is often portrayed by secular philosophers as the ‘triumph’ of ‘rationality’ over religious ‘superstition’. But it was much more subtle and interesting than that. The great founders of modern thinking – Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Descartes, Robert Boyle, the naturalist John Ray – were all devout. For them (as Newton put the matter) science was the proper use of the God-given intellect, the better to appreciate the works of God. Pythagoras, five centuries before Christ, saw science (as he then construed it) as a divine pursuit. Galileo, Newton, Ray and the rest saw their researches as a form of reverence.