This past week I’ve been hosting a postgraduate researcher from the University of New South Wales in Australia. Zoe Xirocostas has been recruited to work on a project on which I’m a collaborating with Prof. Angela Moles and Dr Stephen Bonser (University of New South Wales) and Dr Raghu Sathyamurthy (CSIRO). It’s funded by the Australian Research Council and will run from 2019-2022.
Zoe’s PhD is about understanding the role of herbivores and pollinators in determining how plant species native to Europe have become invasive in Australia. She arrived with a wish-list of species that she wants to study at sites in the UK (Northampton), Spain, Estonia, France and Austria, in order to compare them with populations in Australia. One of those species was small-flowered catchfly (Silene gallica), a plant that I hadn’t seen in Northamptonshire. The NBN Atlas account for the species shows almost no records for central England and when I checked the Northamptonshire Flora it stated that the species had last been recorded in the county in 1843. Clearly this was not a plant we could study for this phase of the project. Or so we thought.
By coincidence, the week of Zoe’s preliminary fieldwork coincided with two days of surveys of the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus by staff and students. This is part of an ongoing project to understand how the development has affected local biodiversity. Friday was to be the last spring bird survey of the season (see this recent post updating that project) and Thursday was to be devoted to plants and bees.
To help with this we had the assistance of two County Recorders: Ryan Clark for the bees and Brian Laney for the plants, both hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic about Northamptonshire’s. We started the surveys on an area of short-cropped, species-rich turf that is being maintained by a combination of rabbit and Canada goose grazing:
In no time at all Brian had racked up dozens of plant species; it’s really a very rich site indeed. Bees were fewer and further between, but after an hour we had a list of about 10 species, including one of my favourites, the ashy mining bee:
Zoe and her field assistant Susmita were busy bagging flower heads for the pollination experiments when suddenly we heard an excited shout from Brian. He had moved on to look at some plants that were coming up in a disturbed area of ground some distance away. Unbelievably, Brian had found small-flowered catchfly! More than 170 years after it had last been record in the county. On our campus! We rushed over to take a look, and there it was, near a path that Zoe and I had walked just a couple of days before and completely failed to spot it. In our defence, although it is striking in close up (see the image at the top of this post) it hides itself very well among other plants:
An amazing discovery! But what is this plant doing here? The answer is that small-flowered catchfly is an annual species of disturbed areas, it requires soil to be turned over in order to allow its seeds to germinate from the soil seed bank. The construction work on the site has involved moving around hundreds of tons of soil and this has provided ideal conditions for the plant and for many others that are associated with this kind of habitat. The challenge now will be to work with the university’s estates department to decide on a management plan that involves regular rotovating of that area. That shouldn’t be too hard, they are as keen to maximise the biodiversity of the campus as we are.
The natural world is full of surprises, especially “lost” species turning up unexpectedly. Soil seed banks for some species can be very persistent, with seeds remaining dormant for decades or even hundreds of years until conditions are right for germination. It’s very satisfying to be present at just the right time to see it happen!
To finish here’s a shot of the survey team, minus one member (Vivienne) who had to leave early; from left to right – Ryan, me, Brian, Susmita Aown, Duncan McCollin, Zoe, Janet Jackson: