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Nature Notes - February 2018

Nature Notes

I saw my first flowering celandine during the last days of December! This is amazing as these little yellow star-like flowers do not usually appear before March.  I have also seen countless expanded hazel catkins during early January.  If you look closely at the hazel twigs, you can see the beautiful tiny deep red female hazel flower, which, if fertilized by the wind-blown pollen from the catkins, will become a delicious hazel nut later in the year.  The fact that hazel has the male and female flowers (organs) on the same plant means that they are monoecious or hermaphrodite, meaning also that they can fertilize themselves or other individual plants (trees) of the same species.  Other plants such as Holly, our only native broad-leaved evergreen tree, are dioecious, meaning that they have male and female plants.  Only the female holly plants (trees) bear berries, which of course contain the seeds that can go on to become new holly trees.  Many birds, such as members of the thrush family, love to eat holly berries, but the birds do not digest the seed within the berry. The seed passes through the digestive system of the bird and passes out with the faecal droppings, often at night while the bird is roosting. Consequently, it is often possible to see where birds roost by finding young holly or elder seedlings a long distance from the nearest parent tree.  This is known as a dispersal system that has evolved because it is a successful strategy for procreation and the colonisation of new areas.

Animals, on the other hand, have evolved their own methods of dispersal by using parts of their own bodies such as legs and wings to take them into new areas, and by doing so, often transport other organisms, not only plants but fungal spores, other animals such as lice and fleas, and also microbes such as bacteria and viruses.  The upshot is that living organisms are continuing to spread throughout the world, and some thrive where they end up but others die, because they find themselves in places that are too hot or cold, or too wet or dry, or too acidic or alkaline.  However, every organism that has been sexually reproduced is unique, this is due to gene mixing which generates variation.  We only have to look at the wide variety of dogs (wolves) living in our homes to see just how variable one species can become.

Dr. Martyn Stenning