Batten Bay Oyster Survey

On the first day of my MBA (Marine Biological Association) work experience week at the Citadel Laboratory in Plymouth, we were taken down to a part of the Plymouth coastline called Batten Bay, a long shingle beach carpeted with a thick layer of brown buoyant seaweed. We headed out at low tide, when all of the large slate rock formations on the beach were open to the air, in search of a foreign species of oyster, called Crassostrea Gigas, or the Pacific Oyster. They grow around the rocky outcrops, and have in recent years been choking out the population of native European Flat Oyster.

The seaweed clogged Batten Bay, at low tide.

The Pacific Oyster is far larger than our native species, with short, sharp frills around the edges and a grey to pale-white colouration; it has a long oval shape that is distinct from the rounder European Flat. The species first came from estuarial areas of South East Asia and Japan, and was first brought into Europe because of its ability to grow to large sizes much faster than most types. It was believed that the waters around Britain would be too cold for them to successfully propagate, although they would be able to grow large enough for consumption. However, they soon adapted and started to take over areas of coast, which has made some ecologists concerned about the impact they are having on the European Flat. Pacific Oysters, like many other oyster species have sequential hermaphroditism, the ability to change their gender at will, in this case on a basis of food abundance. In times of plenty, the oysters become primarily female, in order to allow for a large number of eggs to be spawned so that the young can take advantage of the abundant food, while in times of famine, the oysters become mainly males so that the next generation will be smaller and thus use less of the limited food supply. Larval oysters are microscopic free swimmers, and will search for a new suitable area before permanently attaching themselves to that part of the rock.

The largest Pacific Oyster that we found that day, around 123mm in length. It even has a limpit growing on it for reference.

We separated into two groups, one taking the east side of the beach, and the other on the west side. With rulers and chalk in hand, we scanned the rocks searching for white oyster shells nestled in the rocks, noting down each one we found along with its length. Pictured above is the largest oyster that we found, 123mm long. I named him Ozzie. While Ozzie may be the largest we found that day, the Pacific Oyster can reach 400mm at the absolute most, but most are eaten before they survive that long. By measuring the length of the oysters, we hoped to check on how previous generations were faring, identifying cohorts (groups of oysters that attached to the rock at the same time) by their similar sizes. In addition we would see the success of the new generation, and be able to compare this to previous years, checking if the oysters are on the rise, and if older cohorts are surviving.

The survey was extremely fun, running about the coast and marking out oysters with the help of our extremely knowledgeable professional, Jack Sewell, who knew just about everything there was to know about the coastal ecology of Batten Bay. I look forward to comparing the data we gathered with that of previous years, and seeing how successful these foreign oysters really are.

MBA Work Experience

This summer, I have been selected by the MBA (Marine Biological Association) to spend a week in Plymouth doing work experience with them at their coastal Citadel Lab. Five other aspiring marine biologists and myself will be participating in various surveys across the Plymouth coast and estuary, spending time studying plankton in the laboratories, capturing feedstock for captive animals and going out into the Plymouth harbour to do boat work. I am extremely proud to have been chosen for this experience, and am excited to begin working at the MBA building as soon as possible.

The MBA Citadel Lab, located off the Plymouth Hoe.

Millennium Seed Bank

During my school trip to the Wakehurst Place Botanic Gardens, in which I learned about DNA extraction and performed surveys, the highlight was the visit to the Millennium Seed Bank, the largest collection of wild plant seeds in the world. The seed bank plans to prevent extinction of endangered, endemic or economically useful plant species by collecting a variety of genetically diverse seed samples, which can be stored for use in medical and biological research as well as replenishment of damaged species. In 2009 the Millennium Bank achieved its goal of storing 10% of all the world plant species, gathered from over 150 different countries, using their connections to 80 organisations across the globe. If they continue to progress at the rate they have been, they hope to have gathered a staggering 25% of all wild plant species by 2020.

The Millennium Seed Bank building, created to look like the Sea Bean, one of my favourite plants, and like the seeds they keep underground, capable of lasting years without germinating.

Once inside the building, we were taken through the intricate process that the seeds go through in order to last hundreds, or possibly thousands of years while still remaining capable of germination when needed by future generations. Orthodox seeds can be preserved through a slow drying, sucking the moisture out of them in order to slow down the metabolic rate of the seed, and thus allow it to live for much longer than normal. The seeds are taken to a drying room, kept at a constant 15°C and 15% air humidity, and left in small brown cloth bags until they are completely dry. The variety of seeds in the room is astounding, and looking at one stack of boxes alone, I see seeds from Mexico, Japan, Scotland, America and a colourful myriad of other exotic locations, showing the scale and depth of the project at Wakehurst Place. It is a simple yet effective procedure, with each percent of moisture lost lengthening the seed’s life by nearly a decade. We couldn’t stay long in the drying room however, as our mere presence was enough to send the humidity up, potentially damaging future seeds.

Bags of seeds and grasses, left out to dry.

After the seeds are dry and ready, the extra chaff and husk are gleaned away, using a variety of sieves and shakers, separating out the actual germinating segment of the plant. These seeds are then x-rayed to check for internal attack from grubs and moulds, which, if released into the seed bank vault, could do a lot of damage the chances of future plants germinating. Recently, a new species of insect was discovered in the seeds here, a creature that survived and lived most of its life inside the seeds of this one particular plant, and had been caught when they examined the dried seeds for signs of attack. The now tested seeds can then be stored in the vault, a huge refrigerator kept safely behind colossal vault doors, underneath the Millennium building. The vault is like a bank, not only to protect the seeds from damage by the elements, but also because the net cost to replace the seeds in the bank is in the millions of pounds. Kept at -20 degrees to slow metabolic reactions further, and shielded behind concrete capable of withstanding a plane crash from nearby Gatwick airport, the seeds are in capable hands.

Sadly, not all of the seeds at Wakehurst are willing to be dried and frozen away, especially tropical plants, which are considered unorthodox, or recalcitrant. The act of drying these seeds would kill them, making them useless for experimentation and growth, and so more extreme measures must be taken. In a process known as cryopreservation, the seeds have their embryos removed and stored in liquid nitrogen, at -196°C. If even this fails, there is always room in Wakehurst Place’s extensive botanical gardens for the more stubborn plants, that must be grown to preserve for future generations.

It was a true privilege to be allowed a behind the scenes tour of the Millennium Seed Bank, looking into the ingenious ways samples are preserved, and glancing into the freezing vaults where the hope for thousands of endangered and rare plants are being stored, ready to be used in the next medical breakthrough, or cultivated to preserve dying species of plants all across the world.

Gel Electrophoresis

At the labs of the Wakehurst Place Botanical Gardens, I was given the chance to separate and identify DNA strands using a method known as gel electrophoresis. At Wakehurst, it is important that they can identify and recognise DNA from different species of plant, both to uphold the rules of CITES, an international initiative for the preservation of biodiversity, and to help with research and identification of their own specimens. Given the DNA samples of two types of timber, that the lumber companies claimed were cut in a particular forest approved by CITES, and a known sample from that certified forest, we were asked to determine if the two lumber samples had indeed come from the woodland they were supposed by be from.

First, I removed 20 micrometres of the known DNA sample from the sample given, using a very precise pipette designed specifically for this purpose. I then placed the sample in a small vial, already containing a naturally occurring enzyme called DNA helicase, that is used in the body to unzip DNA while transcription is taking place. The enzyme unzipped the antiparallel strands of nucleotides that form the DNA molecule and cut them into smaller pieces that we can use to identify where the DNA is from. Having given the mixture a firm shake to ensure that it is fully reacted, I stained the DNA to make sure I could see where it was during the electrophoresis segment of the procedure, that would follow.

We then submerged a piece of extremely even and well textured agar jelly into a buffer solution, which the DNA would move through in a process somewhat similar to chromatography. Injecting the DNA into a hole in the agar, and then running an electric current through the buffer caused the pieces of DNA to separate into identifiable bands. This happens because DNA is a negatively charged molecule, due to its phosphate groups, and so will travel towards the anode of the electric currect, the smaller and faster pieces going further.

We all put our developed samples into the gel, and after about 20 minutes of sitting in the electric current, we were able to compare the results. The known sample from the approved forest showed three distinct bands of DNA, while the 2 samples from the lumber companies showed 2 and 1 respectively, meaning with wood was illegally taken from forests that may well be endangered or declining. The wood would be confiscated, and the companies fined, and any usable lumber will be distributed freely in order to ensure that nobody profits from damaging the threatened woodland.

It was very interesting to see how DNA is extracted and compared, as well as learning about its practical application when dealing with the illegal import and export of endangered species across the world. I hope that I have another chance to sample DNA again in the future.

Wakehurst Meadow Survey

The Wakehurst Place Botanical Gardens are one of the last places in Britain where it is possible to find natural meadow or forest. Most meadows across the country are scoured of their native inhabiting grasses and flowers through centuries of management, farmers choosing to plant crops or new, often Italian, grasses that take more easily to fertilisers and provide a healthy and easy to grow feedstock for their animals. This makes true natural meadow, with actual British wildlife very rare, so it was interesting to see what species lived in one of the last preserved meadows.

Using measuring tape and a set of quadrats, we created a transect leading from the middle of the meadow towards the managed treeline of the neighbouring forest. A quadrat is a square metal frame, 1m by 1m in area, used by Biologists to take a sample of a habitat and measure the diversity and species abundance of the whole area. It would be ridiculous and time consuming to search the whole field and note down what lived there, but by taking this sample, I could get an idea of what lived in the rest of the field, while also seeing how the species abundance changed as I approached the forest.

In the centre of the field the field grass coverage was near absolute, with gaps in the green breaking out where moles had previously tunnelled to the surface, and apart from the occasional buttercup or ribwort plantain, not many larger plants lived there. As we approached the forest line, however, we found a greater abundance of different plants, the biodiversity increasing as the shade of the forest made it harder for the grass to dominate the land. Species like knapweed, devil’s-bit scabious, a flower that acts as home to larvae of Marsh Fritillary butterflies, and Birdsfoot Trefoils, sometimes referred to as ‘Bacon and Eggs’ due to the red and yellow colouration of their flowers. Interestingly, the Trefoil releases dangerous cyanide when it is chewed, although it is in such small amounts it is unlikely to be harmful to larger mammals such as humans.

The Birdsfoot Trefoil sitting within my quadrat.

At the edge of the oak woodland, the ground gave way to ferns, before dying out to woodland plants, such as violets and archangels, covered in tiny white spots, that act as magnifying  glasses to focus light onto their leaves. Just before the meadow became forest, we found a group of three tiny Common Frogs, freshly transformed from tadpoles and making their way from the lake at the base of the meadow deeper inland. It was great to see the variety of interesting plant species that grow in our native meadows, especially as it is so easy to forget how amazing our own country is, when shown the brightly coloured rainforests of Brazil, or the volcanic tundra of Greenland. Even such a short way from home I am able to stand in an incredibly rare environment.

Trinity Biology Essay Competition

I recently participated in an annual biological essay writing competition that my school holds for my year, having recently read and researched life in the deepest regions of the sea, a topic that I have found fascinating ever since I was a child. The strange alien landscape at the crushing depth of 6000m down, combined with the soft lighting provided by the luminous organisms living there is more than enough to set the imagination of a young mind running. I am glad to report that the essay that I entered on just that subject has won first prize, and I have received a trophy to commemorate this, at least until next year’s winner takes it. I am extremely proud of having come first, and so I am putting up my essay for anybody who wants to read it, as well as archiving it for my own enjoyment. The essay can also be seen in PDF format here, since the formatting is far better than my blog allows me.


Hell on Earth: Life in the Hadal Zone

It was once theorised by naturalists Edward Forbes and Henry Godwin-Austen that no life could exist below the depth of 300 fathoms below the sea surface. Indeed, it seemed that in the crushing pressures and dark waters half a mile down there could be no possible chance of surviving life, and for nearly two decades after Forbes and Austen dredged the Aegean for life in 1841 this Azoic Theory persisted.

Figure 1 A scale diagram of the aquatic layers. Benjamin Stein.

Figure 1 A scale diagram of the aquatic layers. Benjamin Stein.

As more evidence was gathered, we have found that life still flourishes not only at 500m below the surface, in what is now the higher regions of the mesopelagic zone, seen in (Figure 1.), but deeper still, past 1000m in the bathypelagic, and further still, below 4000m in the silent, lightless abyssopelagic zone. It can seem incredible that at these crushing pressures, devoid of light and nutrition life can still exist beyond the form of extremophile bacterium, which use chemical vents to create the building blocks of life. However, deeper still is the hadopelagic zone. Named for Hades, the shadowy land of the Greek underworld, this zone exists only in narrow trenches carved into the sea floor, from 6000m to a staggering 11000m.

In the depths of the hadopelagic zone, pressure reaches over 1000 atmospheres, the temperature is a consistent 4 degrees Centigrade and sunlight has long since vanished. These unfavourable conditions make it a great challenge to reach and research the Hadal Zone, and we still know near nothing about the species here, even though it totals an area equal in size to Australia. Our entire understanding of the Hadal is based on 4 expeditions and surveys, and even they did not provide much conclusive evidence about life in the Hadal. So how do organisms survive at this kind of depth? A habitat of extreme isolation and endemism, the species living in hell have developed incredible adaptations.

Monstrosities in the Deep

The Chimera was a creature of Greek mythology, a gruesome mixture of lion, goat and snake, fused together into a fire breathing monstrosity that struck fear into the hearts of ancient civilization. In the Hades of the deep sea, found at around 5000-7000 metres, is the best known predator of the lightless ocean, the sea devils. Sea Devils are a specific type of anglerfish, from the family Ceratiidae, from the Greek ‘horned’, and are found across the world, in tropical and Antarctic waters alike.

These deep sea hunters are true biological chimera, a single organism made from the cells of different zygotes. This phenomena has been recorded in many species, including humans, where twins have absorbed each other in the uterus and part of the offspring is actually made from a different organism. Where the anglerfish differ is in that they are the only species that purposely seeks to become a mixture of single beings, slowly losing their individuality from their partners and becoming little more than flesh and blood, drifting silently through the Hadal, linked until death.

When specimens of this species were first dredged up from the deep ocean, ecologists and biologist were baffled as to the lack of male individuals found to be captured. Indeed, all of the creatures that they brought to the surface were female, warty brown skin, voracious needle teeth and the famous luminous lure suspended from the front of the face. Even stranger were the tumorous attachments growing from the sides of the females, seemingly serving no purpose. Nearly a century later, in the 1920s, biologists captured a female specimen with two smaller fish attached to her belly by their mouths. A member of the Natural History Museum, Charles Tate Regan, then the Keeper of Zoology, and later the director of the museum dissected these smaller fish and discovered that they were the same species as the female.

Figure 2. Sea Devil. The male bites into the female’s back to begin their fusion.

Figure 2. Sea Devil. The male bites into the female’s back to begin their fusion.

The anglerfish has enormous sexual dimorphism: the males tiny and utterly without the ability to hunt, have found a bizarre way to solve the problems of living in a vast, uninhabited void, where encounters with a member of the opposite sex are rare. Once mature, the tiny male uses an acute sense of smell to locate the nearest female and bites into her belly (Figure 2.) Once there the male releases enzymes that dissolve both of their bodies and fuse their blood streams together. Atrophy of the features ensues, the male loses his eyes, nose, mouth and fins, becoming little more than a parasitic gonad, which the female can use for reproduction as she needs to. The pair will stay like this until they die, the male totally dependent on the female for the rest of what can only be described as its existence.

As the prominent marine biologist of the time, Charles William Beebe, said, ‘to become a brainless, senseless thing that was a fish – this is sheer fiction, beyond all belief unless we have seen some proof of it.’ This is the kind of incredible lengths that species must go to in order to survive in the darkness.

A Light in the Shadows

Like the dreary realm of Hades, the Hadal Zone is a world devoid of colour and sound. It is almost impossible to imagine such a place, unable to hear or see, with only the cold oppressive darkness pushing in from all sides. Communication as we know it becomes impossible, hunting as fish would in shallower waters is no longer viable. To combat this problem, species of the dark abyss have developed their own light – bioluminescence.

From the Mesopelagic zone downwards, nearly all species are capable of producing their own light, through the use of tiny symbiotic bacteria, or by reacting chemicals called luciferins inside their own body. Away from the harsh glare of the sun, the organisms of the deep sea are blissfully protected from ultra-violet radiation and the damage that it inflicts on our bodies on a daily basis. The UVB photons found in sunlight are capable of fusing thymine base pairs within our body, doing damage to our genetic code, and making it impossible to copy. Antioxidants such as luciferins can fix this damage; but without a need for such repairs this new use was found for the spare chemicals.

Almost every problem caused by the pitch black environment that these species live in is solved by their flashing displays. Prey can be lured into striking range, or the target can be illuminated. A confusing flash of luminescence can distract a predator; or a gaudy light-show could draw in larger predators, capable of threatening the original hunter, as is the case with the vibrant Alarm Jellyfish (Fig 3.) It is little surprise that the Hadal Zone is just as rife with glimmering animals as the rest of the ocean.

Viperfish are some of the most common in the upper hadopelagic zone, using their unique photospheres to communicate with potential mates and other hunting viperfish, before seizing smaller prey like lanternfish with their long immobilising maws. While on the hunt, the darkness of their habitat is a great help, turning off their lights and waiting, motionless, like a sinister assassin, for prey to drift past them in the inky blackness.

Jellyfish also make great use of the shimmering chemicals in their body, and their bizarre alien forms can be seen drifting serenely through the depths, leaving mesmerising trails of bright light flowing behind them. Strangely, the red and orange light that many deep sea jellies produce is totally invisible to the eyes of most other sea life, allowing them some limited vision and communication that most of their predators cannot detect. Divers and underwater photographers at lower depths also use red lights, as it allows them to see the animals they are searching for without disturbing or frightening them.

Figure 3 An alarm jelly flashes to attract larger predators. Credit:

Figure 3 An alarm jelly flashes to attract larger predators. Credit:

In a world with no sun or stars, where everything is a blanket of perpetual unnatural night more shadowed than anything we can conceive, light is the ultimate bringer of life in the Hadal Zone. Almost all species there require it to see, hunt and speak. As it is so succinctly put by biologist Edith Widder, ‘In the ocean, bioluminescence is the rule rather than the exception’.

Over the Edge

The Mariana Trench is the deepest marine trench in the world at 11000m – so large that Mount Everest would fit into it comfortably. Challengers Point is at the Mariana’s base, and is the lowest point on earth, the home of the lowest animals, known collectively as benthos. These creatures live a slow life of fierce scavenging for the few scraps of food that can be found, for at such depths supporting a body capable of hunting is nigh on impossible.

Crawling in the muck of the sea floor, these animals rely entirely on the detritus and debris from the pelagic zones above them, pieces of dead flesh and vegetation, often microscopic in size, which drift down and keep these organisms alive. This marine snow comes all the way from the richer waters of the epipelagic zone.

Figure 4. Supergiant amphipod specimen. Credit: © Oceanlab, University of Aberdeen

Figure 4. Supergiant amphipod specimen.
Credit: © Oceanlab, University of Aberdeen

Sifting through the slimy sediment the benthos include the sea cucumber and flatworms, which use tiny mouthpieces to filter through the remains of other organisms’ lunches in order to extract the life giving nutrients. Supergiant amphipods (Figure 4), crustaceans of 10 inches in length dart about the sand looking for larger debris. The sightings of such animals are few and far between, some coming at 100 years apart; with only seven specimens ever caught.

Perhaps the strangest creature that has been found at such depths is a new variety of xenophyophores, peculiar amoebas that live in extremely deep sea areas. Unlike ordinary cells, this single celled organism is up to 10cm in diameter, colossal considering the size of the cells that we use in our body, which have to be viewed with the aid of a lens. Buried deeply in the sand of the sea bed, this extremophile probes out with alien pseudopods to absorb the scraps that drift down.

Lower than light’s touch, lower that the black billowing vents of chemical cascades that provide for tube worms, lower even than the sea bed itself; these animals are the true lowest of all creatures, forced to extraordinary lengths just to find their next meal.

A world of infinite shadow, complexity and challenge, no other creature on the earth must contend with the same conditions as the denizens of Hell itself. Under the pressure of 11000m of ocean and at near freezing temperatures, the most bizarre, ferocious, vivid and tenacious creatures in existence dwell: pressed into evolutionary diamonds by their crushing environment. Daily adversity sharpens these organisms against the dangers of the cold dark abyss with every new generation becoming stronger, quicker and stealthier in the fight to survive. It is certainly true with such creatures that what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger. If Hell exists, it is here, 6000 fathoms below the water.

Bee Pollen Survey

For many years now, my school has maintained three small colonies of bees, kept in an apiary within the orchards where the hive’s residents can collect pollen and nectar from the surrounding Hawthorn, Apple and Lime trees. Recently, I have been lucky enough to have been offered a chance to conduct a survey with these small creatures, by the leader of the hive, and a bee enthusiast, Dr Kevin Rogers. He is interested in where the bees he is taking care of collect their pollen from, and what kind of pollen they prefer to use.

We plan to take a small sample of pollen from one of the hives in the apiary, once a week for the next few months. Once we have done this, we intend to identify the different pollens through a microscope and using a map of the surrounding area and its forage, to determine the preferred area that the bees like to gather from. We’ll be collecting the pollen using this plastic pollen trap, pictured below, after we have made some slight alterations to the brood box entrance that force all of the bees to head through the collector. As the bees pass through the small holes, some of the pollen they are carrying scrapes off the pollen baskets on their legs, and falls into the box below, ready to be collected.  We are using the most healthy colony for our survey, since they have producing a large surplus of pollen and won’t be affected by losing a small amount.


These bees started out as Buckfast bees, a special hybrid species produced in Buckfast Abbey, which are prized for their low aggression, prolific egg laying and tendency to avoid swarming. However, these bees are now mongrels of Croydon, with no distinct pedigree species, combining the Buckfast genetics with those of bees from the area. One of the colony’s species is unknown, since they arrived as a swarm in the orchard surrounding the apiary, after their queen died in their previous hive. Once the alterations have been made, we can begin to collect the pollen, and I look forward to starting the project some time next week.


British Biology Olympiad

I recently took part in the British Biology Olympiad, a two hour multiple choice exam for those in the country who are extremely interested in Biology, or fancy themselves a bit of a genius. While I make no claims to being in any way a genius, I do quite like Biology, so I made an attempt in the 2016 event. It was an incredibly difficult paper, and I felt good whenever I understood a question, let alone answered in correctly. There was a wide range of areas, testing all facets of biological knowledge, most of which I have never heard of, and so I am still proud to say I achieved the grade of Highly Commended, slightly below actually doing well in the paper. To those off you who came at the top of the country, and will be heading of to Vietnam for the International Biology Olympiad, I am amazed that you could possibly comprehend all of that knowledge. Good luck, and do Britain proud. I look forward to next years event. With some practise I hope to get a Bronze or Silver award.


The AES Annual Exhibition and Trade Fair

Once every year, the Amateur Entomologist Society holds a large meeting at Kempton Racetrack, where enthusiasts and traders can come and show off their invertebrates and trade them. It is the largest event of its type in Britain, and several hundred entomologist turn up each year to attend. I go to this event most years, since I have a sizable interest in entomology (keeping a colony of white-spotted assassin bugs myself) and I enjoy wandering about the stands looking at the different exhibits.

On the ground floor of the Kempton Racetrack building, there is a large trade centre, where breeders from across the country gather to display and sell the various invertebrates that they have in stock. Phasmids, cockroaches, mantis and any number of pinned butterflies. Tarantulas are a particular favourite, with a wide variety, including Red Rump, Salmon Pink, Ornamental Indian and Greenbottle Blue Tarantulas available as spiderlings, as well as many more. Tarantulas are incredibly large ambush spiders, meaning that rather than build elaborate webs to catch flying prey, like the garden spiders we are used to seeing, they prefer to lie in wait, watching for invertebrates and small mammals that stray to close them. People are often terrified of the Tarantula’s giant fangs, which can seem extremely intimidating. While there bite is painful, it is not fatal; the real threat that Tarantulas pose are in their bristles. These tiny barbed hairs can be released into the air, where they get into the eyes and nose and irritate the skin.A Red Rump Tarantula in a box at the Trade Fair.

On the floor above, while there are still many traders about, the various societies, such as the Phasmid Study Group, who deal in stick and leaf insects, and the Bug Club, for minors who are interested in the basics of entomology. This year there was even a small unattended stand proclaiming the importance of earthworms on soil health, naming four separate kinds of worm and a largely inactive worm enclosure. Why a worm would need such a secure enclosure is beyond me, and there was no one around to ask. I saw a number of crabs, which while they are not actually to do with entomology are invertebrate, and therefore fair game. My father even decided to bring home three of those Hermit Crabs to keep in a tank. I shall see how they progress.A group of Rusty Millipede on hisplay at the exhibition.

Also attending the Exhibition, was Matt Smith, who took me on my work experience thrashing ponds and surveying reptiles a few months ago. As a professional entomologist and ecologist, he always attends the Trade Fair, and sometimes sells the extra beetle grubs from his vast collection of colourful invertebrates.

I enjoy the AES Annual Exhibition greatly, and it is one of the highlights of my year. I hope to attend again next year, if my exam schedule permits me to. The people there are almost as interesting as the insects.

Geography Cone Snail

Various shells that used to belong to Geograph

Although you wouldn’t think it, these seemingly innocuous shells belong to one of the most dangerously venomous creatures on the planet, and they are called Geography Cone Snails. I saw the little shells at the Secret Cities of the Sea exhibition at the Natural History Museum amongst various (less dangerous) animals. These animals, named for the mountain-like patterns on their red-white shells, are the most venomous animals on Earth, capable of delivering a fatal sting through a barbed harpoon that is actually a modified tooth. There is no known cure for such a sting the only method of survival being to last until the venom in your blood wears off. Bizarrely, this predatory snail only hunts on small fish, which it stuns with a poison soup before spearing and ingesting through its proboscis. We can, for this reason, assume that the venomous barb is for mainly defensive purposes, since using this kind of poison on small fish would be the largest recorded case of overkill ever seen.

Around 10cm in length, not only is this snail hard to spot in passing, but it is also scarily common, found fairly regularly in reefs around the Red Sea and the east African coast. 0.001 mg of the venom used would be enough to kill half of the population if every person were given a dose of that size, and even 0.0002 mg can seriously paralyse someone. Ironically, the venom has recently been discovered to contain a type of insulin, previously unseen, that can also be used as a highly effective painkiller, several thousand times more powerful than morphine without any of the addictive side effects that normal morphine gives. The problem remains of how to produce large quantities of these proteins for public use. How do you milk a Geography Cone? Very carefully. The answer to this may lie in implanting bacteria with plasmids containing the appropriate DNA for this proteins production, similarly to the way that Factor 8 and human insulin are produced for hospitals. Research is on going.

While this creature is extremely interesting (the most venomous animal on Earth, after all) and actual cases of snail attacks are very low, I hope that I never run into one of these unseeming killers while it’s having a bad day.