A Biotope Weekend

Friday

The trains to Glasgow and Largs and the ferry to the Isle of Cumbrae were all fine. It was when I boarded the bus to the Millport Field Centre that it dawned on me: what on earth had I let myself in for?! I’d booked onto a weekend course run by the Field Studies Council called ‘Marine Species and Habitats: The Biotope Approach’. After volunteering at an aquarium had sparked a new fascination for marine wildlife, I wanted to learn more about what could be found on British shores. I’d done a bit of research using the course’s suggested reading list, and had half an idea what a biotope was, but as I dragged my bags off the bus I wondered if I’d booked myself onto something that would sail completely over my head. I imagined working alongside a team of marine biologists with decades of experience in the field, and here I was with a newborn interest in fish. I was suddenly terrified, and literally marooned on an island for the weekend.

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Blue Mussels (Mytilus edulis)

As I was mulling this over in my head, a girl my age carrying a black hold-all asked me if I was attending the Biotopes course. I was thrilled; fate had brought us together on the same ferry and meant I didn’t have to amble around alone wondering where I needed to be. Our rooms weren’t ready yet so we went for a wander towards the town of Millport. Her name was Abbie, and she was currently part-way through a PhD in non-native seaweeds. This was something I knew literally nothing about, but we chatted about uni and wildlife and all things in between. Meanwhile, it was a chance to see where we’d be spending the weekend, and it was beautiful. Of course, almost everywhere is beautiful in bright sunlight, but even so the Isle of Cumbrae promised a fascinating chance to survey marine wildlife.

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A well camouflaged Sand Goby (Pomatoschistus minutus)

After a loop around the bay we headed back to the Field Centre and took our bags to our rooms. I had feared with some trepidation what the washing facilities would be like, but was very pleasantly surprised to discover a large ensuite shower, not to mention a bed like a cloud. I hastily unpacked then met the rest of the group for our first briefing. Here I met Emily who worked at the Lancashire Wildlife Trust, and before dinner Abbie and I went for a walk with her to the shore to soak up the last sun of the day.

Dinner was macaroni cheese and apple crumble, perhaps one of the most perfect combinations of courses there can be. Then it was time for our first lecture: an introduction to biotopes. My research had prepared me well – a biotope is the combination of a physical habitat and the biological community found living there. Although some of the lecture’s content was lost on me, I left feeling inspired and ready to face new challenges over the weekend. I’d already met lovely people, and all my earlier worries began to feel very insignificant.

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A fragment of broken sea urchin shell

Saturday

Today began early, and by 9am we were down on the beach beginning our first biotope survey. It was a beautiful day for it, and we wasted no time getting stuck in, in my case literally getting my wellies wedged in rock crevices and clinging desperately to my balance. Common species included beadlet anemones, dog whelks and acorn barnacles, but we also found common starfish, hermit crabs, a star ascidian (type of sea squirt) and plenty of seaweed. My knowledge of seaweed species was even smaller than my knowledge of seashore vertebrates, but as Abbie was doing her PhD on them I had a source of very valuable information.

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Star Ascidian (Botryllus schlosseri)
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Common Brittlestar upside down (Ophiothrix fragilis)

Once we’d covered as much of the bay as we could we ate lunch out in the sun (an excuse for some of the group to catch up with the goings on at the royal wedding) and then headed back to analyse our results and try to determine which biotopes we’d found. This was also an opportunity to play with lab equipment, which I haven’t been able to do since A Level Biology. I had good look at the bryozoa I’d found on a strand of seaweed (below). Bryozoa means “moss animal” and viewed up close reveals an intricate lattice of animals situated closely together. I studied these individuals for a while but couldn’t decide between Sea Mat or Hairy Sea Mat.

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A cluster of bryozoa: either Sea Mat (Membranipora membranacea) or Hairy Sea Mat (Electra pilosa)

After beating the queue and getting served dinner almost first, I went back to my room for much-needed downtime before bed.

Sunday 20th

Today was another early start, and this time we drove the short distance to the northern end of Great Cumbrae to a much larger site. The weather was a little dreary but armed with quadrats, transects and clipboards we began to survey the biotopes. Findings started off slowly but once we reached the rock pools things really got exciting. Our course leader Paula found a slug species called a sea lemon – a very pretty blob – and a butterfish. Abbie, Alex and I found a sand goby, sand mason worm, lots of brittlestars, more hermits and beadlets, and my favourite from today: a dahlia anemone. It was the largest anemone I’d seen before, and had beautiful striated and brightly coloured tentacles that slowly emerged again once we’d calmed down to watch it properly. Just as I was squatting to try and get a decent picture, two common prawns appeared underneath a nearby rock. I didn’t know if maybe these were boring sightings but I recognised them from my volunteering at the aquarium so was quite thrilled to be able to confidently identify something in the field.

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Dahlia Anemone (Urticina felina)
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Common Prawn (Palaemon serratus)

Back at the lab, Abbie got to work identifying her seaweeds and Alex had an ID test to do for his assignment, so I had a bash at identifying today’s biotopes by myself. Once I’d done that, I realised I’d accidentally brought a tiny brittlestar home with my sea urchin shells. With Paula’s help, I identified it as Amphipholis squamata. Later, Paula asked us what we’d found, and Alex and I had got the exact same biotopes! I was so pleased with myself.

Dinner was Sunday roast and stick toffee pudding. I must have put on about eight stone this weekend – I’ve been fed like a queen and although my brain has been working overtime, my body hasn’t done so much. After dinner we had our last round-up lecture and went to the bar for drinks. I ended up talking to the two guys from Belfast about Father Ted – it was pretty funny talking to Irishmen about it. I would have stayed longer but I was absolutely shattered. So I headed to bed, falling asleep almost instantly.

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Beadlet Anemone (Actinia equina)

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