Seasonal snapshots of nature in close-up

This month's features:

Please read the important notes on collecting.

Now the days are getting longer and warmer, what greater incentive to enjoy a country walk in Spring. This month we look at more nature in close-up. A wealth of animal life can be found in mosses, particularly sphagnum. Fungi are not just an autumn attraction. The flowers of grasses and rushes are complex but often attractive in close-up.

Animal life on mosses

In previous walks we have looked at the basic structure of mosses and seen how fascinating they are to study in close-up. However, this is only part of their fascination. Did you know that a whole microcosm of animal life lives in mossy habitats, including protozoa, rotifers, water bears (tardigrades), nematodes (worms) and small insects and arthropods.

Sphagnum bogs or isolated patches of this moss near acid streams are particularly rich in species. Sphagnum is a quite distinctive moss even if you are not an expert at identification. The habitats where sphagnum grows are often declining and easily damaged, so please only take a small handful of moss to study (if there are extensive amounts present), take care not to tread on sphagnum 'lawns' which take a long time to recover, and don't fall in a peat bog! The moss should kept in a sealed well-aerated plastic bag or bottle if bringing home for inspection.

The microscopic organisms in mosses will be discussed later in the year, but this month we will just admire the macroscopic members of moss communities. Simply take a small amount of the moss and study under a low power stereo or with the 10X hand lens. There are often a variety of arthropods present including spiders, mites and small insects such as springtails. The image at the top of this section shows a small mite that may be found. A field guide to insects and other arthropods may enable identification to the correct genus if of interest. But it is not necessary to identify them to admire how each exploits the habitat for feeding and moving around.

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Fungi - not just an autumn attraction

The larger fungi, commonly known as mushrooms or toadstools are usually associated with autumn (the fall). However, there are many species that can be found throughout the year. The best places to look are permanently damp habitats such as rotting tree stumps, the leaf litter under trees and even cattle droppings which are exploited by specific species.

The fungi visible above ground is actually the fruiting body, the fungi itself is mass of filamentous growths or 'hyphae' underneath the soil or the substrate eg dead wood on which the fungi is growing.

As long as appropiate care is taken in handling, because some are poisonous, they can be admired using a hand lens. The underside of the cap is of particular interest. The image left shows a cross section through the gills where spores are produced. If the fungus is ripe a 'spore print' can be produced by leaving the cap with stem removed on a piece of white paper overnight. A print of the gill structure will be produced.

In some species gills are not present but instead the underside of the cap looks like a sponge, the spores being released from the pores.

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The flowers of grasses and rushes

The grasses that form our carefully tended garden lawns rarely get the chance to develop flowers, so we may forget how attractive their flowers can be in close up. A 'grass' that flowers early in the year is the field wood-rush Luzula campestris. I use 'grass' loosely here, it is in fact a member of the rush family Juncacea. It is a low growing plant amongst grass but may be spotted by the chestnut coloured flowers (still in bud in the images) and the distinctive yellow anthers shown in close-up on the right.

As spring advances into summer keep an eye on the grasses that come into flower in the countryside and admire the complexity and delicate construction of their flowers, you don't need to identify them to enjoy them!

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Suggested reading

Microscopic Life in Sphagnum by M Hingley. Richmond Publishing Co., UK, 1993.
This little book is a real gem and introduces the common types of organism likely to be found. Well illustrated with keys and suggestions for projects.

Collins Guide to Grasses, Rushes and Ferns by R Fitter and A Fitter. Collins, London 1984. A good illustrated identification guide for UK and N. Europe. The illustrations should allow identification to genus at least. The keys are not that reliable in the authors experience!

Fungi are becoming increasing popular to study and a range of guides should be available in the local library or bookshop.

Image details

Macro images were taken using a CCD camera attached to the eyepiece tube of a stereo microscope using a x1 paired objective with no eyepiece. Camera images were transferred to the PC using a Creative Video Spigot capture card.
Close-up of fungi and catkin captured from video filmed by Maurice Smith....thanks Maurice (our Editor!).
Image manipulation using Photostyler v2.0 software.

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The author Dave Walker is a UK based amateur naturalist keen to encourage people to explore nature in close-up.

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