Reader’s wildlife photos

September 3, 2014 • 3:57 am

JAC: Today Former Dean Cobb contributes some urban wildlife. There’s a quiz (no prize, but warm congratulations if you solve it) in the next-to-last photo.

by Matthew Cobb

Here are some photos I took in a very urban setting – the quad of the Michael Smith Building at the University of Manchester, on the corner of Dover Street and Upper Brook Street, at the heart of the world’s first industrial city. The dragonfly is a male Common Darter, Sympetrum striolatum. He was hawking around looking for prey and a mate – sadly no sign of any females about – and settled first on a log and then on a table, where I was able to get close and above all stabilise my iPhone so I could get a nice close-up. Does anyone know what the dark marks on the leading edges of the wings are for? Many dragonflies have them…

The Michael Smith Building has a large quad, half of which has been landscaped with indigenous wild plants, and seven British fruit trees, as well as some plants that we have saved from around the campus. The pond is a crescent shape, with an adjoining wetland area that is protected from human interference. My office is the third window from the left. The window sill is full of stegosaurs.

The raised beds are each divided into three, and different lab groups have planted them up. We recently deepened the pond and discovered that as well as water boatmen (aka backswimmers), loads of crustaceans, snails and dragonfly/damselfly larvae, we also have newts living in there (we had no idea).The quad is also home to a small population of frogs, which has come from frogspawn we initially put in the pond. This year the frogspawn was entirely ‘home grown’.

Last year during Welcome Week (aka Fresher’s Week or Into Week) we had a Bioblitz with the new Zoology and Plant Sciences students, and made a list of all the plants and animals we could find. That was when we first realised that the frogs were living happily in the quad – we found six lurking under various logs. We’re having another Bioblitz in a couple of weeks with this year’s crop of students. I’ll let you know what we find.

Each year blackbirds nest in the quad, and visitors include wagtails and blue tits, as well as the usual magpies and crows and the odd set of passing mallard that briefly pootle around on the pond before heading off somewhere more appropriate. Occasionally we discover an explosion of feathers, as a sparrowhawk has had breakfast in there. The quad isn’t very bird friendly, however, as it is very deep so the birds have to circle round a couple of times before they can get out.

Until recently I was Associate Dean for Social Responsibility in our Faculty, which meant I could do lots of interesting things, including showing the public what on earth we get up to in what is otherwise a rather anonymous building. So on one side I installed this four-storey high double helix (this unites what virtually all of our 200 lecturers study):

photo 1

On the main road side (Upper Brook Street), we put this double helix, containing a DNA sequence that has a link to Jerry and me. A non-prize for any reader who works out what that link is. There’s a clue in the slogan about ‘the rhythm of life’.

photo 2

The site of the building used to have a rather unattractive school on it:

In the 19th century Frederick Engels, the co-author of the Communist Manifesto, had a house on Dover Street – Engels managed his family’s cotton mills in Manchester, becoming extremely rich as a result. Karl Marx (who lived in London) stayed in the house on a visit and left some stuff there. On 25 January 1865, Marx wrote a letter to Engels about the International Workingmen’s Association they were setting up (now known as The First International – there were three more). In the PS he wrote:

P.S. I left a pair of winter boots (shoes) at your house in Dover Street, ditto new pair of knitted stockings, and probably the 2 silk handkerchiefs as well. I only mention it so that you can drop a word to your landlords ‘some time or other’ so that they know that an eye is kept on them.

Given Marx and Engels’s politics, it’s quite appropriate that our Common Darter is such a lovely red colour.

41 thoughts on “Reader’s wildlife photos

    1. Yes, and Jason Bosch (#10) gets joint prize for getting it exactly right. Many of my colleagues study rhythms (in slime moulds, rodents and Drosophila), so I took the opportunity of putting the sequence of the first ‘clock’ gene – period – on the outside of the building. It’s already been shown as a slide at a number of clock meetings…

  1. The site of the building used to have a rather unattractive school on it:

    I think it looks quite nice. In a Workhouse sort of way. Brick or stone – no, silly questino ; it’s Manchester, so it’s soot-coloured brick.

  2. The black marking near the tips of dragonfly wings are called ‘stigma’. They are an extra bit of vein tissue, and are thought to give a bit more weight and structural reinforcement to the distal end of the wings.

  3. Regarding the genetic code, brute-forcing in Google doesn’t yield anything except fragments of Arabidopsis. How to proceed any further isn’t clear. I’ll cheat and find the school’s website, where it probably says.

      1. Significance of Arabidopsis noted (the “Swiss Army Chainsaw” of genetic botany). But more to the point, the link split the sequence up into two nearly-equal size sequences with no indication of their proximity, considerably increasing the chances of a spurious match.
        Of course, that’s me taking a “bigger-hammer-is-better” approach ,which may well not be very appropriate. So if anyone does know how to (where to) search for this sort of stuff, pipe up. I can trade you a “HOW TO” on some astronomical DATABASES. Damn CapsLock.

  4. That dark mark on the leading edge of the wing is known as a ‘pterostigma’, or just plain ‘stigma’. Strictly speaking, the plurals should be ‘pterostigmata’ and ‘stigmata’, but most of the odonatologists I know just call ’em ‘stigmas’. They’re denser than the neighboring wing tissue, and presumably aid in flight, though exactly how is still under study.

  5. @#$%&^!! I figured there was likely something encrypted in the DNA sequence on the window, and so (while waiting for my tea water to boil) wrote down one strand’s sequence, entered it at the SanDiego Supercomputer site, and translated all six frames. No Trp Glu Ile Thr (WEIT) anywhere. The only thing close is that frame 5 starts Cys Ala Thr (CAT).

    Just reporting this so nobody else tries it.

  6. I ran it through BLAT with no hits on any species, including human, mouse, Drosophila. Using BLAST, There are very short alignments in the human genome and transcriptome, which makes me suspect DNA binding protein gene or transcription factor.

    I’ll go out on a limb and guess that’s it’s a small snippet from a helicase tied to circadian rhythms.

  7. By the way, can I say I think you did some nice things there as Dean – the quad is a great idea – more universities should do that.

    Maybe I will suggest it to the UCL Green Group that we plonk a pond in the UCL quad next to the catalpa trees! Also the decorations on the buildings – a very nice idea.

    Make sure the next survey of wildlife includes the pondwater – bet there will be cyclops, daphnia & pond snails.

    So on behalf of all the small critters, well done Matthew!

  8. Could some Odonata expert out there explain to me why there is both a red darner and a red darter – different species and genus – and what the difference is?


    1. I’ll take a guess, I’m not a dragonfly expert. Darner is N. American. Maybe it refers to the needle-shaped body? Darter is British and refers to the flight action. Sometimes they get called hawker, chaser or skimmer too. Just a guess as I say.

  9. Thanks for the great series of photos and the back story about your building. It’s amazing how one small indigenous pond can become home to so much life. Now all it needs is a couple turtles. Naw…they’ll eat everything 🙂 But turtles are coooool.

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