The Fall of Corncockle

This switch from more traditional farming practices to industrialized monocultures has left a damaging legacy on ecosystems around the globe. This is especially true for unwanted plants. Species that once grew in profusion are now sprayed and tilled out of existence. Nowhere has this been better illustrated than for a lovely little plant known commonly as the corncockle (Agrostemma githago). 

This species was once a common weed in European wheat fields. Throughout much of the 19th and early 20th century, it was likely that most wheat sold contained a measurable level of corncockle seed. Its pink flowers would have juxtaposed heavily against the amber hue of grain. Indeed, its habit of associating with wheat has lead to its introduction around the globe. It can now be found growing throughout parts of North America, Australia, and New Zealand. 

However, in its home range of Europe, the corncockle isn't doing so well. The industrialization of farming dealt a huge blow to corncockle ecology. The broad-scale application of herbicides wreaked havoc on corncockle populations. Much more detrimental was the switch to winter wheat, which caused a decoupling between harvest time and seed set for the corncockle. Whereas it once synced quite nicely with regular wheat harvest, winter wheat is harvested before corncockle can set seed. As such, corncockle has become extremely rare throughout its native range and was even thought to be extinct in the UK. 

A discovery in 2014 changed all of that. National Trust assistant ranger Dougie Holden found a single plant flowering near a lighthouse. Extensive use of field guides and keys confirmed that this plant was indeed a corncockle, the first seen blooming in the UK in many decades. It is likely that the sole plant grew from seed churned up by vehicle traffic the season before. 

Photo Credit: sonnentau (bit.ly/1qo3XQK)

Further Reading:
Clapham, A.R., Tutin, T.G. and Warburg, E.F. 1968. Excursion Flora of the British Isles. Cambridge University Press

Insect Eating Bats Eat More Insects Than Birds in Tropical Forests

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If the early bird gets the worm, it is only because we haven't been observing bats the right way, at least not in the rainforests of Central America. It has long been thought that insects such as katydids and caterpillars exhibit night feeding in order to escape day-active birds. This theory has influenced the way in which researchers investigate insect herbivory in tropical forests. However, recent studies have shown that bats, not birds, are doing the bulk of the insect eating in both natural and man-made habitats. 

In order to accurately investigate the role of insectivorous bats play in limiting herbivory in tropical forests, researchers decided to look at the common big-eared bat (Micronycteris microtis). They wanted to find out exactly how much insect predation could be attributed to these nocturnal hunters. As it turns out, 70% of the bats diet consists of plant eating insects, which is quite significant. Extrapolating upwards, it was apparent that we have been overlooking quite a bit.

Using special exclosures, researchers set out to try to quantify herbivory rates when bats and birds were excluded. What they found was staggering. When birds were excluded from hunting on trees, insect presence went up 65%. When bats were excluded, insect presence skyrocketed by 153%! What this amounts to is roughly three times as much damage to trees when bats are removed - a significant cost to forests. 

To prove that it wasn't only natural forests that were benefitting from the presence of bats, the researchers then replicated their experiments in an organic cacao farm. Again, bats proved to be the top insect predators, eating three times as many insects than birds. This amounts to massive economic benefits to farmers. Bats have long been viewed as the enemies of both the farm as well as the farmers. Research like this is starting to change such perspectives. 

This certainly doesn't diminish the role of birds in such systems. Instead, it serves to elevate bats to a more prominent stature in the healthy functioning of forest ecosystems. Findings such as these are changing the way we look at these furry fliers and hopefully improving our relationship as well. 

Photo Credit: Christian Ziegler - Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading: [1] [2]