Bottle Palm

A rare and endangered species stands proudly amongst the other foliage.

The Bottle Palm is one of the most threatened species of palm in the world, native only to the small and secluded Round Island, and incredibly difficult to grow elsewhere. The Eden Project contains two of these rare species, which are nigh on impossible to grow without the use of climate control in this country. The palms are several feet tall, with a few palm fronds (about 4 -6) and a set of flowers that will sprout from under the crown. The most recognisable feature of this plant is the strange warping on the bottom of the trunk, which is similar to a bottle and has given rise to the rumour that it stores water in this part of its trunk. These rumours are nothing more than folktales, and there is no need to chop them down to get at their water.

The Bottle plant is immensely endangered due to the fact that prior to being exported to America it only grew on Round Island, which lies just off the coast of Mauritius. Its detachment from any mainland for so long, along with the fact that even a slight frost is capable of killing it, means that at the present time the only place it can grow without any aid are in the tropics, where it has been planted to prevent it from dying out. The Bottle Palms still living on Round Island are under threat from forest destruction, but these specimens assure its survival for the future.

It’s one of the most endangered species of palms in the wild, and I am always in favour of the preservation of any species for future generations. It is heartening to see that measures have been taken to prevent its extinction.

Fish Poison Plant

The fallen flowers of a Fish Poison Tree.

These beautiful pink flowers belong to a strange plant known as the Fish Poison Tree, or the Barringtonia Asiatica, which is native to the Philippines and other oceanic islands. It is particularly associated with a small Polynesian island, named Futuna after the native name for the plant futu. I saw on of these plants in bloom at the Eden project, where its fluffy pink-white flowers had just begun to drop off the tree. As its name suggests, every part of this tree is poisonous and although it is not poisonous enough to kill a human in small quantities, grinding the square fruits of the plant can produce a powder capable of stunning or killing fish. It was used by indigenous peoples in order to help feed their groups, although it is rarely used today.

These plants are easy to recognise, either by their cuboid fruit or the sweet smelling pom-pom like flowers. A fully grown tree will reach about 20 meters into the air, and has a large area of coverage from the branches, which causes it to be planted in some countries as shade and decoration. In India this tree is often used for such purposes. The fruit, which is sometimes called a Box Fruit on account of its shape, is light and buoyant, allowing it to float easily on water. In this way it disperses in the same way as the Sea Bean and the Coconut, floating across the ocean until it washes up on land suitable for it to grow. Like the coconut, the seeds in the fruit can remain dormant for nearly 15 years, waiting for the right moment to begin sprouting. This means that the plant is widely dispersed over any area that it is able to grow, and is often one of the first plants to arrive on newly formed islands.

The plant was certainly beautiful, if somewhat dangerous to eat, and its method of distributing seeds is interesting. In particular it reminds me of the Sea Bean Pod, which is one of my favourite plants for the same reasons. Now that I know what this plant is, perhaps I will recognise it next time I see one.

Traveller’s Palm

A travelling palm stands proudly above the rest of the rainforest.

This towering pillar of bark and leaves is a young Traveller’s Palm, one of the many trees that can be found in the Eden Project. This one is fairly young, with only a few of the large frond leaves that make it so iconic sprouting from the tip. As it matures those leaves will spread out into a fan, the outer leaves of which will fall of to reveal more bark underneath. These trees reach heights of about 7 or 8 metres, and the fan of fronds can reach the same distance across in a large specimen. It’s need for large amounts of nitrates and sunshine mean that the rainforests of Madagascar, of which it is native to, are perfect for it to grow, although many of them are used as decorative plants in the west coast of California, where conditions are also ideal for their growth. They sprout small white flowers with large protective leaves, and produce small, blue pod-like seeds.

It is strange that this plant is called the Traveller’s Palm given that it is neither a palm nor helpful to travellers. It is, in fact, a bird-of-paradise plant similar to those found in central Africa, that are used for ornamental purposes in gardens with hot climates. The idea that it is helpful to travellers comes from the thought that water can be stored in the stems of the fronds, and therefore drunk by thirsty explorers. Sadly, the water in the stems of these plants is cloudy and dangerous to drink without purification, and it is likely that someone who drank it would lose more water from vomiting than they gained from drinking it.

Bizarre as the plant may seem, it certainly strikes an imposing figure in the forests and jungles of Madagascar, where it is thriving. I quite look forward to seeing this plant when it is fully mature.

Roul Roul

A crested partridge, or roul roul, pecks around for small insects.

This Roul Roul, that goes by the ridiculous scientific name of Rollulus Roulroul, was one of the interesting creatures used to populate the rainforest biome at the Eden Project. The Roul Roul is a type of pheasant native to South Asian and Oceanic rainforests, such as Malaysia and Thailand.  They are about 20cm long, with males reaching up to 25cm. The males are distinctive by the bright red crest on their head, as pictured above, which they grow shortly after they are born. They also have a black head and underbelly, where the females have an olive green body and a dark grey head. The Roul Roul will travel in packs of 30 – 50 at the very largest, searching the forest floor for fruit, seeds and small invertebrates that they scratch out with their claws. They have been known to follow herds of wild pigs, such as the Barbirusa native to Indonesia, as they move through the forests in order to eat the leftover fruit.

Roul Roul are ground nesting birds, and build their nests like domes out of leaf litter, created so that it is impossible to see the female from the outside. This gives the birds a serious advantage against predators in the rainforest, such as civets. Once a pair of birds mate and make a nest, they are paired for life, and while the female incubates the eggs, the male will go out hunting and gathering for both of them. The features of young Roul Roul are identical to those of the adults, although their feathers do not yet have the same glossy sheen. These birds young are fairly precocious, but unlike other birds that mature young, Roul Roul will be fed by their parents and live in the nest for a while before joining the group.

These funny little birds really brought the Eden Project’s rainforest area to life, giving the interesting plant life little rustles of movement that kept the wild atmosphere. They are unusual, exceptions to how birds of this kind normally behave, and I feel that there is more to be learnt about them.

Giant Pacific Octopus

The aquariums octopus hides away until feeding time.

One of the most impressive animals at the Plymouth Aquarium is the Giant Pacific Octopus, largest of all the octopuses in the world. Measuring 4 or more metres across the arms on average, and weighing around 10-20kg, these octopuses can be identified by their bulky frame alone. The record for a Giant Pacific is substantially bigger, the current identified record being 9.8m in arm span and 136kg altogether, an absolutely enormous specimen. No octopus has tentacles, a common misconception, since their eight prehensile limbs are actually arms, whereas a tentacle has no muscle control, such as those found on a jellyfish. By pulling in water through their head and jets, these octopus can reach speeds of 20 miles per hour over a short distance when they push the water out of their bodies at high pressure. Since an octopus has no bone in their body other than the beak, they can squeeze through any hole their beak can fit through, allowing them to fit into tiny gaps, like the octopus above. Through the contraction of tiny pigments in the skin, the octopus can change the colour and texture of its skin, blending in with its surroundings to hide from prey and predator. It is a surprisingly effective method of concealment, and it can often be hard to spot and octopus, even in its tank. The brain of the octopus is highly developed, and is tubular in shape. Strangely, the octopus will defecate inside its own head, or mantle, cavity and when there is to much waste inside it can reach into its own head through its jets and remove the unwanted substances.

The octopus playfully attacks my camera, perhaps mistaking it for a snack.

The octopuses’ large size does not protect it from predators, and while smaller fish and invertebrates clear the area when it draws near, larger mammals like toothed whales and seals use their fast speeds and keen eyesight to capture these octopuses. A study in Alaska showed that not often seen Pacific Sleeper Sharks are also great predators of these molluscs, with them found almost exclusively in the stomachs of specimens brought in for study. Of course, the octopus also does its fair share of hunting, enjoying mainly a diet of shelled invertebrates, like crabs and lobsters, which are easy to catch for such a fast creature, and can be broken into using the tough beak and shell dissolving toxins. Even sharks have been known to fall prey to these animals, with pieces of them often found around octopus hides, and in one aquarium in America, a tank full of sharks disappearing. The proprietors were baffled at first, wondering who was taking their sharks, until they saw the Giant Pacific Octopus they had in the same tank, capture and suffocate one of the sharks. Needless to say, the octopus was removed to a different tank. National Geographic covered this event in a short video.

Of course, being in a different tank doesn’t always stop an octopus from eating the other denizens of the aquarium. When an octopus is bored of using its mighty brain to open jars and slip through mazes for frozen shrimps, those octopus with a grudge against society and nothing to lose apply their vast intellect to burglary. At Plymouth Aquarium, fish kept on going missing from their tanks. Again, everyone was baffled. Who was stealing these fish? How did they get in undetected? How did they lock the doors behind them when they were done? An overnight camera solved the issue. This octopus had been opening the latch of its tank, slipping out into the aquarium by night, invading other tanks and eating the fish living there. If that isn’t proof of an octopuses brainpower, then no amount of jars and mazes will ever prove anything. Truly they are the criminal masterminds of the ocean.The octopus looms in my direction.

Octopuses are fascinating, and the Giant Pacific Octopus is the big brother of them all. I hope that one day I’ll be able to see the figures of one of these imposing animals in the murky water horizon.

Conger Eel

The tail of a huge Conger Eel sticking out of the rocks.

At the enormous Plymouth Aquarium, located in the centre for Marine Biology in Britain, amongst the more mundane fish of the Plymouth Ocean exhibit there lies a mighty monster of a fish, a huge Conger Eel. This colossal tail is only half of the eel’s actual size, and while it is hard to see in perspective, the largest of these species can reach lengths of up to two metres and 100kg. This European Conger, or Conger Conger in Latin, are therefore the largest type of eel in the world, although the moray eels are nearly as long. Normally grey in colour with a white underbelly and darker snouts, the females will tend to be far larger than the males, often up to half a metre longer. They live across the east Atlantic from Scandinavia to North Africa and will also live in most of the Mediterranean ocean, where they are commonly seen in the shallows. They can live up to enormous depths such as 1000m but are also seen making their pits in shallower waters, such as the Plymouth Harbour.

Like the eel seen above, Congers live much in the same way as any other eel, nesting in eel ‘pits’ in crevasses in the rocks, often with groups of other eels. It has even been known for morays and congers to share the same pit. Being mainly nocturnal, they well stay in their pit for most of the day, coming out at night to hunt and scavenge. Congers will eat large fish, crabs, lobsters and octopuses that they catch, as well as eating any decaying carcasses that they may find. They have sharp teeth to grab their food with, but are not considered especially aggressive, despite their intimidating size.

During the breeding season, the European Conger’s body goes through a massive change, the skin becoming softer and the teeth dropping out of the mouth. Then, a huge migration begins, taking the eels out of cold European waters and into the sub-tropics of the Atlantic, such as the famous Sargasso Sea. The Sargasso is a large gyre by the Gulf of Mexico which is known for its role in the lives of European and American Eels. The sea is sometimes said to be thick with eels, almost as though you could walk out onto them. While this is somewhat an exaggeration, it is certainly true that a huge number of eels exist at one time in that ocean, with each female Conger producing several million larvae.

Large and astounding, and yet so close to home, I hope that I can see some of these eels in the Atlantic and Mediterranean in the future. It was a shame that the eel at Plymouth Aquarium didn’t feel inclined to show themselves while I was there, but then again, it was during the day. They were probably quite sleepy.

Scuba Diving in Plymouth Harbour

Between the 2nd and the 7th of July I went on a trip with my school to go diving in the Plymouth Harbour. I’ve been learning with the sub aqua club for a few months and these were the first open water dives that I would do, out of the pool actually being able to look at the wildlife that inhabits the waters of Britain first hand. These dives were also essential for my BSAC (British Sub-Aqua Club) Ocean Diver qualification, and I had a number of tests, as well as over 2 hours of open water diving to complete in order to become a qualified Ocean Diver and enjoy all the perks that come with that. After 6 wonderful dives and a bit of theory, I am happy to say that I am now an Ocean Diver and have recorded all of my dives in my log. I am now moving on towards my Sports Diver qualification.My red Diiving Log Book, as provided by BSAC.

When you are diving in a new area, it is always important to become used to the layout and to check that your buoyancy is correct for deeper, more advanced dives. In light of this, the first dive of the week was a buoyancy check, adjusting weight belts and jackets so that I could hover in the water without having to wave my arms about, like normal swimmers. When diving without a wetsuit a weight belt is not needed, but since the water was extremely cold I needed to wear one for the dive. Wetsuits hold a certain amount of air in them when you dive, which makes you more buoyant and can lift you to the surface dangerously so the weight belt counteracts this. Additionally, water with a high concentration of salt, such as the ocean, is easier to float in so again more weight must be added to the belt to adjust. Pairing up, we took to the water, a sheltered area of the harbour with a shallow bottom and several small kelp forests. The descent to the water was slippery, especially in our heavy equipment. My mouthpiece tasted unpleasant and salty from the water, and cold ocean trickled down my back into the wetsuit, insulating me from the colder water outside. Sadly I had unbalanced my weight belt and so I spent most of the dive with it trying to pull me onto my back, but I learned the important lesson and next dive my belt was in order.

We went down again, later that day, to a shallow 3.5 metre depth in order to begin the tests I would need to pass to become an ocean diver. We travelled out into the middle of the alien-scape, waving arms of seaweed and darting blurs of fish, and there we sat down at the edge of the larger kelp forest. Here I proved that I was capable of removing my VR (the direct air supply) and finding it again, and that I could take off my mask and replace it underwater, using my nose to clear it of water. I was awarded with a small clap that signals ‘well done’ and we swam amongst the kelp a little more before surfacing. Throughout the first day the visibility had been horrible, pieces of algae and spawn preventing me from seeing for than a metre in front of myself, if that. It had been choppy too, churning about, and sadly this only got worse on the second day, when we were prevented from diving, since it was unsafe. I did some theory instead and prepared for my exam.

On the 5th, to avoid a day without diving, like the last, we moved into Somerset to a filled in quarry called Vobster Bay, which had been made specifically for diving. They had sunk down several speedboats and cars to dive around, as well as the wreck of a Hawker Siddeley plane, whose fuselage I swam through. Small silver fish with red fins and tails swam around me, almost close enough to touch. It was a truly strange experience, like looking out of a fishbowl into a different place almost like I wasn’t really there. I seemed hard to believe I was so close. We went down to 15m for that dive, scooting amongst the wreck.

My write up of the fourth dive on that trip.

Now it was time for me to complete the CBL (Controlled Buoyant Lift), the hardest practical test I would need to complete as an Ocean Diver. My dive partner Richard became purposely limp at 10m down, pretending to be unconscious. I tapped his mask to make sure that he was alright, then grabbed the straps of his dive jacket so that we would not drift apart. Still holding on with one hand, I inflated Richard’s jacket, while venting my own, allowing him to pull both of us steadily upwards. If I had lost my grip on Richard he would have shot to the surface. At 10m down that’s not so dangerous, but from a deeper depth in a real emergency, the DCI from such an ascent could kill a person. One we reached the surface, ignoring the standard BSAC 6m decompression stop, I gave the signal to the ground crew that everything was alright and that it was only a drill, before grabbing the top of Richards tank and towing him to the shore. I did very well and I’m quite proud that I managed to save Richard.My log of the drift dive with Ian.

On the final day of diving, we returned to the Plymouth Harbour to go out on a drift dive. In a drift dive you simply sink to the bottom of the sea bed and allow the current to take you where it wants while you look at the wildlife living in the water. We headed out on the boat to an area called Cawsand Bay and my partner, Ian, and I dropped backwards off the boat into the water. As the current took us about the harbour, Ian and I saw a number of interesting animals, such as tiny anemones that shot back into the safety of the sand when we approached, brittle stars, with their bristly black arms, and even a cuttlefish, one of the strangest things that can be seen in the ocean. These small creatures, pictured below, move by undulating the plates at the side of their body, and can move quickly to capture fast moving shrimps and fish. They have been known to communicate by changing their colour in strange and complex conversations that show their emotions. It was a real treat to see one up close.

An example of a cuttlefish, although it is not the one that I saw.

This is not the cuttlefish I saw, but it is the same species.

In order to complete my Ocean Diver qualification I needed 10 more minutes of diving, to lead a dive, and to pass the exam I had been preparing for. The exam was extremely easy, more common sense and a bit of book reading than actually challenging questions. I passed the exam with flying colours, 29/30. My dive leader attempt was less successful, getting lost and leading Ian through several kelp forests before becoming beached on low tide. Luckily, I had given an excellent briefing and debriefing for the dive and had been attentive to Ian’s wellbeing while under the water, and that was mainly what was being looked for. I’m sure that I will improve as I lead more dives.

Diving is a truly magical experience, the closest that you can get to and alien world while staying on the planet. Unless you intent to become a Marine Astrobiologist, and head off to Europa. I can’t recommend the experience enough, as every moment under the water is the best experience you can possibly have. If you are interested in joining the BSAC group and learning how to dive, visit here. It is only a small fee, and then any BSAC qualified member will teach you whenever you need. As a now proud Ocean Diver, I am looking forward to my next big diving trip, possibly in Malta, and I shall continue to learn with my school club.

Marine Biological Association Membership

I have decided to become a member of the MBA (Marine Biological Association) in order to further my skill and understanding in the career path that I want to pursue. Based in Plymouth, they provide opportunities and support for marine biologists and ecologists across the UK, funding research programs and providing laboratories to biologists in need.

As a member I now receive an interesting and informative magazine every so often, keeping me up to date on what is going on in the community. They also provide a number of opportunities and lessons to budding marine biologists, such as their work experience program that I intend to apply for. If you have an interest in marine biology, or simply want to read more about them, you can find their website here. If you are considering becoming a marine ecologist or any related job in the UK, I urge you to become a member as soon as possible.

Invasive Species, Coral Seaview Survey, Evolution of the Brain, A New Virtual Reality

An Inside Science podcast I listened to today really caught my attention, as it contained a number of interesting topics that I hold close to my heart. The talk about invasive species, such as New Zealand Pygmyweed that I often see in ponds, interested me, since I had never thought about the benefits of introduced species that we label with the term ‘invasive’. I am extremely interested in the preservation of coral reefs, as they are such diverse areas of life. I will definitely visit the new exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London, and recommend that others do the same. The evolution of the brain has been something that I have had some confusion about for quite a while, and these new insights into our most valuable organ has got me thinking about how different forms of life may use different ways of controlling their bodies, outside of communication. You can listen to the program here, and book tickets to the Secret Cities of the Sea exhibition here. To see my experience at this exhibit, click here.