The Spiders of Sussex Chalk Pits

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Thursday 16 February 2023 10:17

It's been a rough start for the year but despite this, I am ahead of the game for once with work. I needed a new project to focus my recording efforts. In 2021, some of my most exciting spider finds were in chalk pits, at Amberley Chalk Pits (chiefly, Centromerus albidus found whilst looking for other rarities - a species not seen in the UK since 1969!) and at a small pit at Iford. This got me thinking, how many more of these small sites are there out there and what might be hiding there? Many of them seem to have never been looked at for biodiversity in anyway. 

They are often not that inviting, the one in the image above was huge but mostly vertical and clearly only the base was accessible, while others are a little easier to record. There are loads of them, peppered around the South Downs (just drive along the A27 and look for big white patches) and I am only just starting to get a mental map of where they are and who owns them, so that I can start gaining access.

I have data for nine sites so far, six of these are historic (and two of these represent full surveys) and three are from new sites I have looked at in the last two weeks. 

I have pulled all this data into one matrix, with species down the side and each quarry listed as a column on the spreadsheet. Amazingly, this is already up to 97 species of spider and even more amazing, 18 of these have conservation status (18.5%). Clearly, chalk pits hold a significant number of rare and specialised spiders. Of these 18, five species are listed as Nationally Rare.

It's not just spiders, I have recorded 531 species so far in these nine pits, 384 of which are invertebrates.

What are the outputs of this survey, I hear you ask?

  • Enjoy myself at a relaxed pace.
  • To find and access as many chalk pits as possible with landowner permission and get me to some new, bite-sized, close-to-home, unrecorded areas of Sussex.
  • To record as many spiders as possible in these pits.
  • Use some subterranean/pitfall traps in a few places.
  • To record other taxa in a casual way, whilst doing the above.
  • To take some very basic chalk pit biometrics.
    • Percentage chalk/vegetation
    • Slope
    • Aspect
    • Presence of scree
    • Presence of sievable moss
  • Write it all up at an undetermined timescale. I'm talking years not months.
  • Use the data collected to generate a list of "Chalk Pit Indicator Species" (CPIS) of spiders and analyse using the biometrics to assess and the rank the assemblage of chalk pits in Sussex for their spiders and other wildlife.
I visited a new site yesterday, and recorded four spiders with conservation status. The highlight was the Nationally Scarce Hahnia pusilla, a spider I have only ever seen in bogs before. Here is the 1.5 mm spider showing her epigyne. It's only my 3rd record (out of 28,551 spider records).

The others were the ubiquitous Agyneta mollis (this over-designated spider is listed as Nationally Rare, Near Threatened and Section 41). My hunch is that it should not even be Nationally Scarce. It is now the most frequently recorded spider with status that I record, and the third most frequently recorded invertebrate with status that I record (after Small Heath and Lygus pratensis). I am working on proving this spider is not a conservation concern, it's not habitat restricted, it just likes open places. I have even found it on boring lawns with the sucker. The other two were both surprises. Theridiosoma gemmosm and  Monocephalus castaneipes (this latter is not a common spider in Sussex).

In bryophytes, the base of the quarry was covered int the liverwort Leiocolea turbinata (Top Notchwort). And a singing Marsh Tit was a pleasant surprise.

But all of this was eclipsed by a "WTF is that?!" moment! I love that there are so many beetles, that you could bump into one you have never even heard of before (this being my 1624th species of beetle in the UK) just a few miles down the road. This is the Hop Root Weevil Mitoplinthus caliginosus (Nationally scarce a) and Mark Gurney tells me it's really scarce and hard to find, as it lives in litter and soil. Sieving it from moss then is probably the way you are most likely to find it, like I did.

What I think is also really cool, is that the entire insect is covered in huge pits, each filled with muddy chalk. It's a walking chalk pit assemblage, and a fitting find for the start of my chalk pit survey. It's also a great thing to find when you are writing a book about pan-species listing, as it goes to show that when you are surveying for one specific thing like spiders, if you have an approach where everything counts and anything is fair game, then you can come away with your highlight being something totally different, in this case a stonking weevil!

If you have a chalk pit, have access to one or know of one that you think I might not know of, please get in touch. Small ones can be good but the thing is, they need to be at least partially open (grown over with trees is no good) and at least some exposed chalk. Those with scree and thick (sieveable) moss on top of this, tend to have more diversity too.

The fungus from The Last of Us is in the UK!!!

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Tuesday 7 February 2023 15:54

But unless you're a moth larva, moth pupa or a False Truffle (and you might well be yet) you're probably OK. Either way, I am hoping that a shameless blog title like this will get lots of hits and shares. 

Before the TV show, before even the computer game, I have been onsessed with this weird group of fungi. I have seen four of the fungi that are generally referred to as Cordyceps but three of these are actually in two different genera now (Tolypocladium and Ophiocrodyceps - this latter was specifically referred to in The Last of Us though).

Anyway, here are the four species I have seen in Sussex and Surrey, in order of how frequent they are on the NBN.

Scarlet Caterpillarclub (Cordyceps militaris)

Who doesn't love Nice 'n Spicy Nik Naks? This one parisitises moth pupae underground, bursting right out of the poor sods with these bizarre orange-red fruiting bodies. Ebernoe Churchyard is a great place to see them. I have also seen them in Brookwood Cemetery and Kent & Sussex Cemetery but that's about it.

Snaketongue Truffleclub (Tolypocladium ophioglossoides)

This is one of the ones that parisitises False Truffles, rather than insects. I have only seen it once, at Brookwood Cemetery. Such a great English name!

Ophiocordyceps gracilis

This one parisitises moth larva, I think I read maybe even specifically the Common Swift, which feeds underground at the roots of various plants. I was shown this one several years back in 2012 at Mill. We stumbled on another in 2017 at Levin Down and then I found one in chalky secondary woodland at the back of Brighton in 2020. I have only ever found one at a time and never in the same place twice.

Drumstick Truffleclub (Tolypocladium capitatum)
The other species that targets False Truffles. Probably my favourite of the four, because I stumbled on this one myself at Graffham Common a few years back while looking for spiders. They look like cartoon matchsticks.

There are some other species, I believe. But I am yet to see them. Would love to see photos of other UK species if anyone has them, especially if the host is known.

So, I don't think we are quite at the stage where these fungi are going to start infecting Human brains but it's nice to see just how close to home the very real nature that inspired the computer game and the excellent TV adaption came from.

Thank you for all these wonderful gifts

Posted by Graeme Lyons , Friday 3 February 2023 18:15

I don't think I have ever done anything that was so gut-wrenchingly difficult and simultaneously, beautiful and profound as this. It was a great privilege to read a very personal piece about my Mum at her funeral. I really wanted to share it with other friends and family who couldn't be there and some who couldn't hear it. Now it's also up online forever, for those that want to read it again. And some Cat Stevens too.

Thank you.

Thank you, Mum; Mother, Irene, Irene Tooth, Irene Jeanette Tooth (what a lovely middle name that is), Irene Lyons, Irene Carlin. Thank you.

Mother, sister, daughter and granddaughter. Mother, aunt, grandmother and great grandmother. Mother, fighter, survivor. Artist, devourer of books, lover of animals, lover of family. Lover.

  • Thank you for dragging my consciousness out of nothing but star dust.
  • Thank you for a happy childhood; showered with love and made to feel safe. Protected from harm.
  • Thank you for all those Star Wars figures and all the sweets, chocolate & marzipan, even when money was tight.
  • Thank you for all the dental work.
  • Thank you for a childhood running wild and free, with endless summer days spent up the Brook catching Bullheads with Daz and Gilly, or roughing it with William under the stars in the spinney around a camp fire. Thank you for that long leash. For letting me be more than a little feral.
  • Thank you for nurturing my love of nature, for placing me “here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name.”* I would be lost without it. I’m gutted you won’t get to read my first book. I’m writing it now and dedicating it to you, Mum.
  • Thank you for selling all my Star Wars figures so I could buy my first car.
  • Thank you for making me fiercely independent and for the gift of enjoying my own company.
  • Thank you for not going too mad when I accidentally appeared naked in the News of the World aged 14 at that Pagan festival in Fradley.
  • Thank you for a house full of animals, especially those five lovely cats; Humbug, Treacle, Crystal, Dixie and Marmalade.
  • Thanks for those cherished memories of holidays to North Wales, climbing up the River Ysgethin and to the mountains beyond and spending hours playing pool with Steve.
  • Thank you for letting me grow “food plants for insects I was breeding” in the garden.
  • Thank you for my three sisters: Humbug, Treacle and- Oh no, wait. Wrong bit, sorry: Bev, Max and Teri.
  • Thank you for encouraging my love of science, space and the fantastical. Tonight, a rare green comet, not seen from the Earth in 50,000 years, makes its closest approach. I imagine it’s your emerald chariot, perfectly timed to return you back to the stars.
  • Thank you for Steve, he is stuck with us now and we will stand by him. We promise we’ll look after him, Mum.
  • Thank you for my fierce sense of justice and strict moral code. Thank you for teaching me to not hold grudges. And that people make mistakes but can change.
  • Thank you for making me value truth, above all else.
  • Thank you for teaching me to read before starting infant school, so I could read the Radio Times and pretend to be sick on the days that Chock-a-block was on. *cough*
  • Thank you for making me question everything. All of the time. For being that one kid at school who always refused to pray in assembly. For igniting the fire in my belly.
  • Thank you for teaching me to care, not just about myself and those close to me, but for everyone on this planet. And to never vote Tory.
  • Thank you for my creativity, it bleeds out into my life in so many different ways. As it did yours and still does now in all of your children.
  • Thank you for the gift of my middle name; Trevor. Yeah. Thanks for that one, Mum.
  • And thank you for never teaching me to say my ‘th’s’ properly.
  • Thank you for all these wonderful gifts, Mum. Luv you .We’ll bloody miss you.

Thank you.

* quote by Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago.

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