Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Touching the Unicorn

My strapline says: scribbler, scuba diver and unrepentant vagabond, so I thought it was high time I told you something about my scuba diving experiences. Here is a little tale about the unicorns of the underwater world…

Blue Triggerfish
 When it came to naming newly identified species, Latin was adopted as a universal system. Not so, the common names. Many common names are often simply descriptive. Hence: blackbirds, tortoiseshell butterflies and death’s head moths, to name a few. So it is with many fish. Triggerfish have a little concealed dorsal fin that flicks up like a trigger as a warning signal; surgeonfish have spines as deadly sharp as a scalpel. There are cornetfish, frogfish, butterflyfish, glassfish… you get the picture.

The first time someone mentioned unicornfish I was intrigued. Unicornfish? Surely the stuff of legends and fairytales! Of course the reason for this name is more prosaic. Unicornfish have a protrusion between their eyes, some more obvious than others.

Spotted Unicornfish
I have to confess to feeling somewhat disappointed when I identified my first unicornfish. Visions of endearing fish in My Little Pony colours were shattered. 
Drab in colour, it is the ‘horn’ that makes this fish recognisable rather than its ‘plumage’.

So, I ignored unicornfish in favour of the flamboyant and flirtatious strumpets of the fish world. I allowed myself to be diverted by multi-coloured parrotfish, cute anemonefish - or clownfish - decked out in orange and white, delicate butterflyfish, angelfish and strangely angular boxfish. And who wouldn’t be seduced by the Many Spotted Sweetlips with its Angelina Joliesk-pout?

Spinecheek Anemonefish

Common Boxfish
Many Spotted Sweetlips

Yet, the unicornfish had something up their metaphoric fishy sleeves that would knock the others’ behaviour into a cocked hat… their curiosity of divers and our bubbles.
Pause for any length of time around unicornfish and they’ll hover above you in your stream of bubbles. There is something enormously appealing about any wild creature that is willing to interact.

Waiting for the unicornfish
Now, whenever I spotted unicornfish on a dive, I would wait to see whether they would approach and hang out in my bubbles. Whenever they did, their demeanour reminded me of those Japanese macaques – you know the ones that sit in the hot water pools with sleepy-eyed, stoned expressions?

Humpback Unicornfish

The last time I saw unicornfish I was diving in The Maldives. One bold individual hovered just above my head, enjoying my bubbles. I reached out reflexively, as I often do. It’s a futile, harmless gesture because no fish will tolerate human contact. On this occasion, the unicornfish stayed put and allowed my fingers to brush, ever so softly, against his surprisingly velvety skin.

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly - Insect mini-series

Here is story number 5 in my insect mini-series

Small Tortoiseshells and Peacock Butterfly (West Cork, ROI)
It was all a bit much. Bad enough that he had to endure all the other Small Tortoiseshells muscling in on his chosen Buddleia, but the Peacock interloper was one lepidoptera too far.

He watched the activity from his solitary perch with a jaundiced compound eye. The other Tortoiseshells were feeding close together, probing the flowers for nectar with their long proboscises. When the Peacock arrived they had merely budged up a bit. He, on the other hand, had flown off to an upper level.

It didn’t take him long to realise the advantages of his elevated position: he could observe the females and spot likely candidates to lure into his territory close to the nettle patch.
The nettles played an important role in the mating business because female Small Tortoiseshells preferred to lay their eggs on the underside of nettle leaves. The territory he had already scouted out beside the nettles was surely irresistible.
Etiquette dictated that he should wait in his territory until a female entered it before he started wooing her. However, if he spotted a potential mate, perhaps he could make an early start at the courtship procedure on the Buddleia itself. He hadn’t tried this strategy before. It was risky. Courtship entailed approaching a female from behind and drumming his antennae on her hindwings. She wouldn’t be expecting it while she was feeding and might react as if she’d been goosed. Still… he who dares…

A fetching looking female alighted to feed on a flower below him. He landed beside her. Now he just had to summon his courage.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Huntsman Spider - Mini-series of insect stories

Here is story number 4 in my insect mini-series

Huntsman Spider - Savusavu, Fiji

Nocturnal hunting came with its own set of rules, rewards and hazards. While she risked the dangers of the hunter becoming the hunted, she enjoyed a freedom of movement that only a webless spider could experience.

Fruit Bat - or Flying Fox in Papaya Tree, Fiji
On this particular night she had stalked a beetle up into the canopy of a papaya tree, and found herself confronted by a flying fox – or fruit bat. The bat had taken umbrage at the interloper who had disturbed it at its evening meal, causing the Huntsman to make a rapid retreat. The spider leapt, jumped and skittered down the papaya tree and took refuge on a nearby house where she had spotted some interesting activity. Moths were hurling themselves against a window in a vain attempt to reach the light within.

 She had barely positioned herself to pounce on a juicy looking specimen when she spotted a gecko approaching, no doubt with the same idea.
Now the Huntsman had a serious problem. With a potential leg span of 160mm she was the largest spider in this part of the world, but geckoes were dangerous predators. She knew the lizard would have no qualms about taking her on. Indeed, a spider of her dimensions was probably a far more attractive proposition to the gecko than a slim moth with insubstantial wings.
The Huntsman withdrew.

She needed to find a hiding place because she knew that more geckoes would arrive to feast on the moths. Her preferred choice was loose tree bark to slide and hide beneath, but with sunrise imminent she didn’t have time to leave the security of the building to go in search of something more suitable. She therefore elected to remain under the eaves of the house.
Now, if only the creature that lived within the house would stop flashing a light in her eight eyes, she might have been content to stay a while. As it was, she waited patiently for night to descend once more so that she could make good her escape.