Fruits of the autumn

Autumn is the time for fruits to become ripe enough for animals to eat. This time last year, Nowhere Wood was full of ripe acorns and the squirrels and birds had a heyday. This year, there are no acorns, at all. Life is uncertain, in Nowhere Wood.

Somewhere, inside a fruit, is a seed and seeds contain new lives – the next generation of the woodland plants.

These fruits are blackberries. The seeds are found inside the berries. They are tiny, with hard tough seed coats.

Birds, especially blackbirds and thrushes, love to eat blackberry fruits. In doing so, they help the plant to spread its seeds away from the wood.

 

To survive, the blackbirds need the blackberry fruits and the blackberry plants need the blackbirds.

  1. Think about what happens to the seed when the fruit is eaten by a blackbird.
  2. How does the blackbird help the blackberry plant to spread its seeds away from the wood?

The secret of the winter flowers

Goodbye, for now

By late October, the last of the visitors are leaving Nowhere Wood. House martins are birds that build nests in the eaves of the surrounding houses. They fly by swooping up and down in the summer skies, feeding on flying insects.

 

Then, suddenly, as the season changes, they leave. But where do they go?

Amazingly, for such confident, visible, birds, they have been able to keep this a secret from us. And, even today, we really do not know for sure. We think they fly to Africa, over the Sahara Desert, to countries like Cameroon, Congo and the Ivory Coast. That’s a journey of over 5 000 km.

There they spend the winter, feeding and resting, before making the return journey in early Spring, arriving back to Nowhere Wood by April.

 

If all goes well, they return to the wood, and even to the same nests. It is a dangerous adventure and not all make it back. The birds can be eaten by birds of prey, or trapped by hunters.

Above all, the declining number of insects is killing the house martins. Loss of habitats, use of pesticides and climate change are all linked to human activity, so indirectly, we are to blame. So, perhaps, in the future, it will not be goodbye for now, but goodbye forever.

  1. How does the use of pesticides across Europe and Africa affect the survival of house martins?
  2. How could we conserve our populations of house martin?

Fruits of the autumn

Safety in numbers

cluster fliesThese animals look like cars parked in the autumn sunshine. They look harmless enough, but they have some gruesome secrets.

What are they and what are they doing? They are called cluster flies, and they are warming their bodies in the sun, before flying to feed on the fruits of the wood.

They are having adventures in time and space in Nowhere Wood.  Life in the wood is dangerous and the animals are busy being alive: feeding, drinking and staying warm.

The animals certainly look like flies: with one pair of wings, a large head and huge compound eyes. Look closer and you might see their mouthparts, sucking water from the surface of the leaf.

cluster flies
cluster flies on leaf in Nowhere Wood, October 2021

The flies have lived their whole lives in Nowhere Wood. Their mothers laid their eggs in the soil last autumn. In the Spring, the eggs hatched to release larvae into the soil that burrowed into the bodies of earthworms.

They spent the early summer feeding on the worms before pupating. The adults emerged in the early summer, killing their earthworm hosts.

 

 

The flies are in a hurry to breed before it goes colder, later in the month. They are becoming mature enough to produce the next generation of flies.

Then the cycle of ‘being and becoming’ will begin again.

There is safety in numbers. The main predator of these flies is a type of wasp. There are twenty pairs of eyes looking out for danger and when one senses the wasps, they all fly away.

Life is so uncertain in Nowhere Wood. As well as wasps, the air contains the spores of dangerous fungi, that can infect and grow inside the adults,  eating them up from the inside! In spite of the dangers, enough cluster flies survive to breed to be present in the wood next year.

Life is an uncertain adventure for the cluster flies, the earthworms, the wasps and the fungi. Everything is connected in Nowhere Wood.

  1. Suggest why cluster flies need to warm their bodies in the morning, before they can fly.
  2. Suggest why there is safety in numbers.

Goodbye, for now

Subterranean superheroes

The leaves covering the floor of Nowhere Wood are slowly disappearing in the mild December nights. Fog hangs in the air. The wood is preparing for winter and everywhere is quiet and still. Most of the real action is taking place below the ground, but what is making the leaves disappear?

 

The culprits are earthworms, the little subterranean superheroes that do most of the heavy lifting in Nowhere Wood. There is about 45 million earthworms underground in the wood, with a total biomass equal to about twenty elephants. They are easily the most abundant animal in the wood, but they are so rarely seen.

 

Earthworms tunnel into the soil making the burrows that are their homes. At night, they come to the surface to drag fallen leaves back down into their burrows. The burrows are also perfect homes for bacteria and fungi.

 

 

The bacteria and fungi  feed on the leaves, turning them into nutrients that they use as food. This is humus. Earthworms eat the fungi and the humus-rich soil. As they do so, they glue the soil particles together into small clumps. This improves the quality of the soil, making it a perfect environment for plant roots.

 

Plant roots need plenty water, air and nutrients, all of which are given to the soil by the fungi and earthworms. We can think of earthworms as the soil’s farmers, ploughing the soil for the plants. Without their work, no life could exist in Nowhere Wood.

 

The famous scientist Charles Darwin studied how plants, earthworms and fungi work together to keep woods alive, and he wrote a famous book about it in 1881. He wrote about earthworms: “It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organised creatures.”

  1. In what ways do you think that soil is alive?
  2. Think about how the trees, fungi and earthworms work together to keep the wood alive.

Today, Friday 4th December 2020, is World Soil Day 2020. Here is a video celebrating our dependence on soil:

Spring is coming!

Climbing the walls

A hundred years ago, Nowhere Wood was a sandstone quarry, and there is still a cliff face at the end of the wood.
How can this hart’s tongue fern grow on a vertical cliff face about two metres from the ground.

That is quite an adventure in time and space. This story explains how this fern can climb walls.


Ferns are an ancient group of plants, first appearing on Earth about 390 million years ago. That’s about 260 million years before the emergence of flowering plants.

Like fungi, another ancient group, ferns produce spores. They are the brown dots on the underside of this fern leaf. Spores are light and float in the air like particles of dust.

One spore floats up to a small crack in the rock face. Rainwater and the decaying remains of a leaf have formed a sticky, jam-like, humus inside the crack.  The spore sticks to the humus and germinates, developing into a tiny little plant, about 10 mm long.

This is a fern, but it is not the mature adult form. It has tiny roots that grow into the humus, drawing nutrients from it.
This small plant is called a gametophyte because it makes gametes for sexual reproduction. Gametes are sperm and egg cells. 


These gametes will come together to make the adult fern on the surface of the tiny gametophyte.

The gametophyte makes many small sperm that swim in the water on the surface of the plant. They swim towards eggs, which are much larger. This photograph shows a fern sperm fertilising a fern egg.

The sperm and the egg join together. A single cell is produced that will grow into the adult fern. Eventually this fern will make spores of its own.

This may sound like a long-winded and complicated adventure, but it seems to work well, because there are so many ferns in Nowhere Wood.

The fern exists in several different forms during its adventure: spores, eggs, sperm, gametophyte and adult plants. What do they have in common?

Each of these forms is made of one or many cells. Each cell contains a nucleus, and inside each nucleus is a genome. Genomes contain information. The information in the genome is the same in all of the different forms of the fern.

The genome contains the secrets of how to be a fern and how to move forward in the next step of the adventure.

  1. The fern exist in several different forms during its adventure: spores, eggs, sperm, gametophyte and adult plants. Think why is important that the genome in every form is the same? 

Life is a relay race

Moving things on

The weather is warm and wet in Nowhere Wood.

These are perfect conditions for growing the fungi that spread  everywhere throughout the soil of Nowhere Wood. Fungi are Nature’s recyclers, feeding on the fallen leaves, fruits and wood.

Fungi feed on the wood of the dead oak trees, turning it into nutrients that provide energy and chemicals needed  to grow new fungal cells.  (These cells form long threads called hyphae). Some fungi can spread out over really large areas, several kilometres wide.

At this time of the year, the fungi are busy ‘ being’.

Then one night, silently and without warning, the fungi do something else.

They produce structures that we call “mushrooms” **.

Mushrooms are  fruiting bodies. They produce thousands of tiny spores.

Spores are small and light. They are carried on air currents to new places in Nowhere Wood, where they will germinate and grow into new hyphae.

Spores have often been found in the filters of jet aircraft flying at the edge of the atmosphere, so some spores can travel right round the world. When fungi produce spores they are ‘becoming’ something new: small, light and mobile versions of themselves.

Then, almost as soon as they arrive, it is all over. The fruiting bodies die and become food for other fungi and bacteria in Nowhere Wood.

This is how it is. The precious molecules are used, recycled and become part of the growth of new organisms. Nothing is ever wasted.



 

  1. All of the atoms in the world were made when the universe began. No atoms have been made or destroyed since then. Imagine what life would be like without Nature’s recyclers.
  2. You are a collection of recycled atoms. Think about how carbon atoms enter and leave your body. [Hint, carbon atoms are found in carbohydrates and in carbon dioxide.]

You can read more about ‘being and becoming’ here.

 

**Some mushrooms are good to eat, others are really poisonous and can kill us. It is hard to tell them apart unless you are an expert, so it is sensible not to touch or eat any mushrooms you find in a wood.

Climbing the walls

Squirrel wars

One hundred and fifty years ago, the oak woods near Nowhere would have been home to red squirrels. Now they have all disappeared.

The red squirrels have been replaced by grey squirrels that were introduced into the UK from the United States in the 1870s.

Grey squirrels spread to nearly all parts of the UK, replacing the red squirrels wherever they went. Now red squirrels are only found in a few places, where they are protected.

Grey squirrels are 60% better at digesting oak acorns than red squirrels, which seem to prefer hazel nuts. Oak acorns are much more common in Nowhere Wood than hazel nuts, and this favours the grey squirrel.

The success of grey squirrels at surviving and breeding in Nowhere Wood is due to the production of acorns, which varies from year to year.

Survival is a risky journey for any squirrel: the arrival of new competitors or interruptions to the food supply can pose real challenges.

 

Their lives are  adventures.

The word ‘adventure’ has two parts:

Ad means moving towards something.

Venture means attempting something dangerous or difficult, that is risky, with no guarantee of success.

Put the two together and you get the idea that the lives of all living organisms are risky journeys into the future, with no guarantee of success or survival.

If you like, you can think of life as:

organisms having adventures in time and space

  1. Think about the squirrels and the oak trees. In what ways are their lives adventures?  [Hint: think about what the word adventure means.]

 

Being and becoming in Nowhere Wood

Organise and stay alive

Living organisms have very organised structures.

Everything depends upon the way that the different parts of their bodies work together.

The parts of this watch work together, so that the hands of the watch move round in a rhythm that we use to tell the time. The hands do this because of the precise organisation of all of the parts of the watch.

The ability to tell the time emerges from the watch, only when all of the parts move together smoothly. If anything goes wrong, the watch “stops” and the ability to tell the time disappears.

Living organisms are alive because they are organised. Everything depends upon the way that the different parts of their bodies work together.

For an organism, life emerges and exists for only as long as its parts work together smoothly.

If anything goes wrong, the organism becomes ill. If it is very serious, then the organism dies and its life disappears. This is difficult to think about, but it is a fact of life.

  1. One of the important features of human society is that we have learned how to care for the sick and the elderly. Hows does this help the survival of humanity?

Moving things on

Being and becoming in Nowhere Wood

 

All living organisms are doing two things at the same time. They are:

Being (they are keeping themselves alive) and

Becoming (they are moving towards the next stage of their lives).

The butterfly is being and becoming at each stage of its life.

All of the animals and plants in Nowhere Wood are also “being” and “becoming”.

  1. How are the oak trees in nowhere Wood being and becoming?
  2. How are you being and becoming

 

Counting the ways to stay alive

Counting the ways to stay alive

No one knows how many different kinds of animals and plants are alive today, and, sadly, we never will.

A survey in 2011 suggested that there are nearly 8 million species of animals and nearly 300, 000 species of plants.  Astonishingly, nearly 90% of these species have yet to be discovered, described or named. Many are found in hard-to-reach places, such as tropical rain forests or the deep oceans. Given the rate of man-made habitat destruction, it is possible that many of these species will become extinct before they can be named by scientists.  

These 8.1 million species are, for now, the success stories of evolution. Each is a unique way of solving the problems of surviving and reproducing in an unforgiving and changing environment.

All species, like this humpback whale, have special characteristics that allow them to survive in their chosen habitats.

But if the habitats change too much, such as when when the oceans become acidified, rainforests are cut down or burned, then species may no longer be able to survive and they become extinct. Forever. 

  1. Why does it matter that species of organisms become extinct before scientists can discover them?

Organise and stay alive