More than we know
More than we know
Throughout the year, family, friends and Wharfedale Naturalists Society members pass on wildlife observations that they think may come in useful for this column. Sometimes these are not immediately useable and so I file them away and about now, at the year’s ending, I like to reread them. This week’s Nature Notes is, therefore, a bit of a miscellany, but I hope a theme emerges!
The first story comes from late spring and a rare warm spell. Friends have a chime fixed to their garden door that alerts them to anyone coming in that way. It kept sounding, they’d rush to the door – no one there. A mystery! Eventually the culprit was unmasked. A cock blackbird had incorporated the chime sound into his spring repertoire.
Modern technology has enabled researchers to make detailed study of birdsong – finding, for example, that many songs include notes previously inaudible to humans. We’re also much more aware of variation: locally some birds of the same species may have regional dialects and, over time, many develop their songs as the season progresses, adding embellishments and incorporating passages from other birds or, indeed, attractive sounds like door chimes!
The second story is from November. After days of cold blustery weather, suddenly a wonderful mild morning. When my husband looked out of an upstairs window there, close to the house, hung a cloud of gnats enjoying the sunshine and rising and falling in true Keatsian fashion. They could only have been there a couple of hours but, in just the right position across the edge of the window, a small spider had placed the delicate strands of its web, and about a dozen tiny flies were already trapped there – enough to keep the spinner going for weeks.
The third and, I think, most peculiar story was pointed out to me by another friend, interested in all facets of natural history. It concerns some research by a Japanese scientist Toshuyiki Nakagaki on the behaviour of slime moulds. You may come across slime moulds locally: what looks like a trail of lentils across leaf-litter or a dollop of scrambled egg among the grass. They used to be classed as fungi but, since they move and feed, are now placed in a category of their own. Nakagaki placed a maze over a petrie dish, put oatmeal at the entrance and exit, introduced a culture of slime mould at the entrance and waited. The slime moved through the maze, taking the most direct route and ignoring all dead-ends. If this report is reliable, you could say this collection of unicellular organisms exhibited a guiding intelligence!
Yes, my notions of what constitutes intelligence are constantly being challenged, and never more so than when contemplating our own. I’ll round off this miscellany with my favourite 2008 quotation: “If the (human) brain were so simple we could understand it, it would be so simple we couldn’t.” (Lyall Watson quoted in Guardian Obituary, July 23,2008).