The life beneath your feet

Common shiny woodlouse by Sue Taylor

BBOWT volunteer recorder, Sue Taylor takes a closer look at the life beneath our feet and finds a hidden world

In the first lockdown many of us fortunate enough to have a garden or access to parks and nature reserves took the opportunity to get more connected with the natural world and delighted in the life around us.

Winter lockdown has been more challenging as the natural world seems to be sleeping, just the odd bird or squirrel to brighten the day.

But look harder, there is still plenty to see and you don’t have to go far to see it. Even on a grey soggy winter's day there is life to be found, but instead of looking up, look down.

Variegated centipede

The variegated centipede Lithobius variegata recognised by its stripy legs and the triangles on its back. Photo by Sue Taylor

Gently turn over a small log or look under a stone and you will see life, centipedes, millipedes, woodlice and beetles.

Gently push aside leaf litter and you will find yet more invertebrates, beetles hunting for snails, tiny springtails that ping out of the way, larvae of moths and nymphs of bugs.

Solidier fly larva

Solidier fly larva by Sue Taylor

Collect a bag of leaf litter and put it in a deep tray so that you can sift through it and you may find all sorts of intriguing little beasties.

If you are lucky you may find a pseudoscorpion, they look and move just like their larger cousins, but at 2-5mm and lacking a venomous tail they cannot harm us.

common pseudoscorpion

Our most common pseudoscorpion Neobisium carcinoides by Sue Taylor

There is a complex web of life here. Fungi and bacteria are eaten by herds of grazers including snails, springtails and woodlice, while predators of all shapes and sizes from tiny mites and spiders to impressive centipedes and gawky harvestmen stalk the grazers.

The leaf litter is also a hiding place and a nursery. Some moths, like the satellite (named for the planet like markings on its wings), pass the winter as adults, while many flies live as larvae in the leaf litter before emerging in spring and summer resplendent in their adult forms.

Satellite moth

Satellite moth, named for the planet like markings on its wings. Photo by Sue Taylor

The denizens of the leaf litter and compost heap may not be our most glamourous invertebrates but they are vital, together ensuring that vital nutrients are returned to the soil and helping to lock away carbon onto the soil, doing their bit to slow the climate change we are responsible for.

If you do go looking, be kind, make sure you put back logs and stones exactly as found and cover up any soil exposed as you scrape leaves away.

Mycelial strands of a fungi

The fine mycelial strands of a fungi eating a leaf and helping return nutrients and carbon to the soil. Photo by Sue Taylor

While out taking exercise, I have been investigating the invertebrates in the leaf litter at Dancersend nature reserve near Tring. I found around 50 species in January, but I know there are many more to be found, so I will keep looking.

I also investigate my garden and many species of the woodlands are also in my garden. You never quite know what you will find, it is always worth a look. All you need is a magnifying glass (or if you don’t have one fill a clear bottle with water, it's not perfect but will magnify).

Common shiny woodlouse

Common shiny woodlouse by Sue Taylor

Children may well be enthralled by what you can find and it’s a great addition to any online learning be it simply counting how many woodlice are under a stone or seeing the food web in action.

If you find something you can name, please put your record on iRecord. So few people record invertebrates in winter your sightings will be especially welcome.

Sue Taylor
(Volunteer recorder for BBOWT, focusing on entomology)


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