Devon and Cornwall reports

Devon Dragonflies

13 October 2016

Dave Smallshire is a dragonfly recorder for Devon and former trustee of the British Dragonfly Society. He began his talk by showing us pictures of the oldest dragonfly fossils of 350 million years ago, still easily recognisable today.

There are about 6000 species of dragonfly and damselfly globally and 48 species have bred in the UK. Devon provides a wide range of habitats including lowland rivers and streams, canals, ditches, lakes and ponds, and 29 species breed here.

The common name often indicates their method of feeding, with skimmers catching insects over water, and darters, hawkers or chasers. They use a large jaw which can shoot out to catch prey. Our largest dragonfly, the emperor, can catch butterflies on the wing, while small damselflies take aphid-sized prey.
From late spring onwards they emerge from the water where they will have spent usually one or two years passing through their larval stages. They need a good supply of invertebrate food and unpolluted water.

Emergence is often in the evening, when they climb up vegetation and rest while the abdomen and wings harden and their pigment gradually appears. This can take up to two hours in a large species and is the most vulnerable stage in their life cycle, when they can be damaged by the weather or attacked by ants.

The adults lay eggs directly in water or on nearby vegetation and can often be seen flying in tandem. Some hawkers lay their eggs inside plant stems. The adult stage of their life cycle is brief, a few weeks for damselflies and a few months for dragonflies, eventually killed by the cold and lack of food.

The fascinating talk was illustrated by Dave’s own beautiful photographs.

Mary Jenking CBiol MRSB


Seaton Jurassic Centre

2 July 2016

The Devon and Cornwall branch is lucky to have the Jurassic Coast, a natural World Heritage Site, on its doorstep. Mike Green gave us a clear and enthusiastic account of the geology of the site, illustrated with models and fossils characteristic of the various rock types.

The Heritage coast stretches from Exmouth eastward for 96 miles to Studland Bay near Bournemouth. It is the only place in the world that reveals the three epochs of the Mesozoic era, the Triassic from about 248 million years ago, Jurassic, from 200 million years ago and the Cretaceous, 144 to 65 million years ago. Sedimentary rocks are laid down horizontally of course, but from the tilting of the land they are now exposed progressively along the coast.

During the Triassic the area was a red sandy desert and this is seen in the west of the site, with high red cliffs, sandstone stacks and not many fossils. As the continents were separating from Pangea, sea levels rose and the Jurassic deposits formed in shallow seas. Here clays and shales predominate, high in calcium fixed by marine organisms. Amongst the fossils are gastropod molluscs, echinoderms, insects, fish and amphibians and plant material.

There is a fault line at Beer, Devon, and the two sides represent about 1 million years of change. In the Cretaceous period to the east the area had lowland swampy conditions, later overlain by chalk. Here fossilised reptiles (including dinosaurs) and mammals are present.

In the afternoon we enjoyed the Seaton Visitor Centre which deals not only with geology and fossils but provides interactive demonstrations of world environmental issues.

Brian Wood FRSB


Royal Title Celebration at the Eden Project

30 April 2016

I saw a birthday card recently which claimed that a party without a cake is just a meeting. Devon & Cornwall’s recent event at the Eden Project was definitely a party, as a celebratory cake was cut and consumed before guest speaker Christopher Bailes presented his fascinating talk about the Chelsea Physic Garden - connecting people with plants for three centuries.IMG 0536

Christopher was curator at the RHS Rosemoor Garden from 1988 before moving to the physic garden as curator in 2011. We heard that the garden has undergone many changes over the years, with little remaining from the original Apothecaries Garden that was created in 1673.

All gardens evolve – they develop and are interpreted in different ways by successive generations – and the Chelsea Physic Garden is essentially a botanic garden with a mission to demonstrate the medicinal, economic, cultural and environmental importance of plants to the survival and well-being of humankind. I think Hans Sloane (who donated the land for the original garden) would approve.

After lunch, Eden Project horticulturist Ian Martin spoke about his background and the role that the centre plays in connecting people with nature, before guiding the group around the Rainforest Biome.

Ian has an illustrious 20 year history at the Eden Project – he was plant nursery curator for 15 years and is now technical advisor. His enthusiasm for the specimens planted in the biome is exceeded only by his desire to ensure that all visitors learn about the importance of their conservation and the protection of their natural habitats.

During our tour we were treated to a presentation about Amorphophallus titanum – the Corpse Flower – three of which were close to flowering, when they emit their eponymous stench.

Our thanks to Christopher Bailes and Ian Martin for making this a celebration to remember.

Dr Ian M Varndell CBiol FRSB


Winter Birds and Seals Boat Trip

17 January 2016

DC-birds Oystercatchers

Devon and Cornwall RSB members joined the weekly Sunday morning bird-watching trip from Paignton harbour, around the coastal cliffs, out to sea, then onwards to Brixham harbour and back again. We were in the excellent hands of naturalist Nigel Smallbones and the crew of the Dart Princess.

The weather was crisp, cold, bright and clear. Good for wintering birds and also to allow clear views and explanations of the geology of the cliffs, including limestone and striated layers of sandstone.

Leaving Paignton harbour we were immediately dive-bombed by a male Peregrine. On the trip we had frequent close sightings of  many birds including 17 Great Northern Divers, 18 Great Crested Grebe and Scoters in flight. There were 900 plus Guillemots on the colony cliffs at Berry Head and many more in the water in the Brixham area. Seals were also basking in the cool sunshine in Brixham harbour.

Interestingly, despite the northerly movement of many auks associated with climate change, the Guillemot colony here on the South Devon coast is increasing steadily in numbers year by year.

A good trip and as we got back into Paignton harbour we saw both the male and female Peregrines, just before the rain started!

Mr Michael Morgan MRSB


Science and Nonsense in Drug & Alcohol Policies

19 November 2015

David Nutt -webBy his own admission Professor David Nutt polarises opinions. During an entertaining, thought-provoking and informative lecture delivered to a packed audience of over 300 people at the University of Exeter, Professor Nutt provided evidence of complicity, media mis-rapportage and ignorance underpinning the Government's position that "illegal" drugs are dangerous and cannot be used under any circumstances, including in clinical research.

Sacked in 2009 from his post as Chair of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs by Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson, Nutt has been an outspoken advocate for evidence-based drugs policy, rather than the seemingly irrational approach taken by successive administrations.

Nutt presented compelling data on the accelerating incidence of liver disease, clearly illustrating that alcohol is the most dangerous drug. It affects the individual who consumes it, those close to those who abuse it, as well as society in general which has to suffer the impacts of its consumption.

Conversely, he showed the vilification of MDMA ('ecstacy', or 'empathy' as it was first named) by the mass media, and presented evidence of miscommunication in cases where 'mephedrone', formerly a 'legal high' was 'confused' with methadone (a heroin substitute) to exaggerate its danger to society.

Nutt's research is focused on researching the clinical utility of 'illegal' drugs – psilocybin (from 'magic' mushrooms) as a treatment for depression and cluster headaches, and MDMA for post-traumatic stress disorder. Gaining access to these drugs for clinical research can take years, and is set to get worse.

The Psychoactive Substances Bill, which is likely to gain Royal Assent in 2016, will ban the sale of psychoactive substances regardless of harm and benefit (including nitrous oxide which is widely used for pain relief), and could end essential research work and needlessly delay new therapeutic drug development. Is this the worst moral law for more than 400 years?

Watch the talk in full on the Exeter University website.

Dr Ian M Varndell CBiol FRSB



24 October 2015

In 1665 Robert Hooke published Micrographia, the first fully illustrated book on microscopy – a whole new world of tiny things. To celebrate the 350th anniversary of the book and its beautiful illustrations, Exeter Cathedral hosted our day of microscopy and drawing, in the Chapter House.

The book was presented in a glass case so that we could see the detail of the drawings and text. Ellie Jones, the Cathedral Archivist, was in attendance to explain its importance and how it was being conserved.

DC Micrographia

Exeter University provided modern microscopes and slides, giving everyone the chance to compare what we can see today with the tiny images that Hooke saw. Dr Charlotte Walker and Dr Emma Rundle from the Marine Biological Association provided an antique microscope and information about the history of microscopy in marine research.

During the day Professor Gero Steinberg from Exeter University gave a lecture on the development of microscopes up to the present day and Dr Felicity Henderson from the English Dept of the University gave a talk on Hooke and Micrographia.

The event was linked to the Big Draw, a national celebration of drawing that takes place annually in October. Visitors of all ages attempted to draw their own versions of tiny insects and plants and marvelled at the skill of Robert Hooke.

It was a delight to receive so many appreciative comments from members of the public who had never looked down a microscope before – much better than just seeing it on television was one response.

We should like to thank Exeter Cathedral, Exeter University and the Marine Biological Association for their help and enthusiasm.

Mary Jenking MRSB


Visit to Upcott Grange

27 August 2015

"The large copper butterfly is really dependent on beavers". That got our attention as we were welcomed to Upcott Grange by Derek Gow, whose consultancy is dedicated to reversing the decline in water vole populations.

Derek's work involves breeding and releasing voles into habitats where suitable riparian conditions have been recreated and the North American mink has been eradicated. Micro-chipping the voles allows recapture surveys to identify any wild-bred progeny. His re-introductions have been successful in various sites around the UK.

Derek also has beavers at Upcott, and we waited by their enclosure as the sun went down, hoping to catch sight of them. Though only August, the chilly air sent us back indoors without a glimpse.

Visit to Upcott Grange

We were compensated by seeing some of the many Upcott water voles close up. Here's a tip: the most essential piece of equipment for catching your vole is a Pringles carton – exactly the right size for a chubby little vole to scuttle into.

We left feeling that there is hope for this little British native again. What they need most is open, sunny wetlands with lots of banks and vegetation, something they are likely to get here where the newly discovered wild beavers quietly remodel the River Otter.

A helping hand from one native Briton for a distant mammalian cousin – and hopefully for the large copper butterfly too.

Dr Alma Swan FRSB


Biology Week lecture: The Improbable Origin of Life

14 October 2014

Dr Nick Lane from University College London spoke to an enthusiastic audience of about 250 people on 'The Origin of Life'.

Nick Lane resized
What are the chances that intelligent life might have evolved elsewhere in the universe? Nick favoured the Jacques Monod/Stephen Jay Gould school of thought that all was due to chance events – that even if there were intelligence elsewhere, distance and time would work against finding it.

It was evolution in the eukaryotes that led to the great structural and ecological complexities culminating in intelligence. The characteristics that define them include include a nucleus with mitosis and meiosis, speciation and senescence. Recent studies indicate that another key characteristic is chemiosmosis (the movement of ions across a selectively permeable membrane), the presence of mitochondria playing a key role in this.

The case was made that complex life arose only once in four billion years through a chance combination that 'worked' positively and accounted for all the special characteristics of the Eukaryota. No prokaryotes had developed any of these characteristics in that time.

There followed a lot of questions and comments with which Nick dealt easily, offering helpful technical clarification. His new book, The Vital Question is due out in February 2015. If it is of equal quality to that of his talk, it promises to be a good read.

Chris Fry MSB


AGM and nanoscience talk

12 March 2014

The speaker at our AGM at the University of Plymouth was Professor Richard Handy, director of the Exotoxicology Research and Innovation Centre at the university. The centre has a strong interest in nanoscience and works on many different organisms, from microbes to man.

At less than 100nm nanoparticles are little wider than the DNA helix. Early examples were made for cosmetics, fabric coatings and fuel additives. By 2011 there were over 1,300 products on the market and the industry was worth around $1,500bn. The particles are mainly carbon, silver and titanium-based and produced chiefly in the US and Europe.

Around 50 have been approved as medicines so far, including drugs for cancer and pain control. Nano-silver is being investigated for antibacterial properties in dentistry, while nano-iron may prove useful in breaking down persistent pesticides. There is interest in the optical properties of certain particles which change colour according to their size.

Exotoxicity is being studied in algae, crustacean and mussels, but very little is known about the effects of nanoparticles in amphibians, reptiles and birds. Studies are comparing the effects of nanoparticles with those of dust, ash and carbon particles on human respiratory epithelium. There are also some concerns about nanoparticles aggregating in coastal sediments and thereby entering food chains.

In a fascinating and wide-ranging talk Professor Handy explained that nanoparticles can potentially deliver huge benefits, but there are many gaps in our knowledge of the risks to ourselves and the environment.

Mary Jenking CBiol MSB


Can Insects Feed the World?

17 Jan 2014

Dr Peter Smithers (Plymouth University) entertained an audience of almost 70 with a talk on entomophagy – the consumption of insects.

Best picture -EntoEvent resized

Over 2 billion of the world's population already includes insects as part of its diet, and Dr Smithers is an enthusiastic advocate of insects as a high protein substitute for quadruped meat.
The production economics are compelling. To generate an equivalent amount of protein, insects require one-tenth the land, one-sixth the feed, and one-tenth the maturation time than cattle – plus they release far less CO2 than cattle. But can insects form more than a novelty addition to diets in 'developed' countries? A few companies in the UK are distributing insects for culinary use, but prices are high and products such as silkworm pupae have not yet made it to supermarket shelves.

After the talk, the Society's in-house crooner (and regional coordinator) David Urry brilliantly encouraged us in song to "stuff insects down our throats"...which we duly did. Devon-based Master chef Peter Gorton cooked a delicious cricket risotto followed by brownies covered with caramelised mealworms. The fact that several attendees went back for seconds shows that insects could become staple ingredients in our diets. Perhaps in the near future one of your "Five a Day" might be selected from grasshoppers, giant water bugs and sago worm larvae?

Mary Jenking CBiol MSB


Umberleigh Farm Visit

5 October 2013

Trevor Wilson FSB invited members for a tour of his farmland in Umberleigh. Two of his Exmoor ponies were waiting to meet us. One of the world's oldest breeds, the Exmoor ponies are the most primitive of the North European equines, with genetics distinct from other horses. Currently there are about 2200, but only about 160 foals are born a year so they are classified as endangered.

Ron Smith introduced us to his Devon Closewool sheep. They are known for their dense medium length fleece, ideal for survival in wet, cold conditions and for producing full-flavoured, succulent meat. They are at risk because they are only found in a small area, making them more vulnerable to disease.

After this introduction to two rare breeds we boarded a trailer, sitting on hay bales for a tractor tour of the Pouncey family's farm. We learnt about various aspects of health and welfare including traceable ear tags. An animal passport has to be with each animal on every movement throughout its life. This is essential for monitoring the spread of disease.

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After a superb lunch by Atherington and Umberleigh WI, Trevor gave a talk about the diversity of livestock breeds in Devon. Some such as the Red Devon cattle have been exported all over the world including America, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Russia.

There are probably about 3200 tigers left in the world. None of our rare livestock breeds have that number.

The survival of our rare breed livestock now remains in the hands of individual farmers and Rare Breed Societies.

Mary Jenkins CBiol MSB


Spinal Frolics

3 September 2013

Consultant spinal surgeon Mr Andrew Clark alerted us to the personal journey our spines undergo during a lifetime and what happens when things go wrong.DC SPINAL FROLICS 2

This lecture was attended by an eclectic range of membership, age and profession, some of whom made full use of question time, obtaining a personal medical consultation!

The talk was hugely enjoyed by all; a GP loved being reminded of student days, a former school teacher was fondly reminiscent of anatomy classes, and a young County Cricket fast bowler who had spent 6 months training in the New Zealand Cricket Academy was relieved and grateful to receive information about potential sports injuries. Many found it informative and illuminating, all the more so for a young practising osteopath, eager to earn CPD points.

Our chair Mary Jenking, presented a Society of Biology Long Service Certificate to former chairman and treasurer Brian Petts. We celebrated with a finger buffet and delighted in meeting old friends and making new ones.

Our thanks to Mr Andrew Clark and staff, and Mr Christopher Weatherley the Founder and former director of the Spinal Unit.

Chris Fry MSB


Victorian Plant Hunters & Pioneers

27 April 2013

Plant historian Caradoc Doy entertained members and their guests at Exeter University with the fascinating story of the Veitch Nurseries of Exeter and Chelsea. Caradoc gave a detailed overview of the firm, illustrated with slides of the many popular plants they introduced. These nurseries sent out 23 collectors over a period of 72 years, and were responsible for many horticultural firsts including sending out collectors around the world to collect hundreds of new exotic plants.

In 1840, William Lobb, travelled to South and North America, bringing back the monkey puzzle, (Araucaria), fuchsias, escallonias, Caenothus, Embothrium, Lapageria, Crinodendron, and later many conifers, most famously the Wellingtonia. On one dangerous journey he obtained Araucaria araucana cones by rifle shot! The seedlings were later sold for about £300 each (current value).

In 1854, John Dominy, the chief hybridiser was credited with raising the world's first official orchid hybrid, Calanthe x Dominii. This led to the establishment of a new branch of horticulture which was controversy in Victorian Britain and was regarded as 'tampering with nature'.

We enjoyed our exploration of the university grounds and found specimens planted by the Veitch's over 100 years ago. The exuberance and enthusiasm of the speaker was much appreciated. A limited edition of the centenary reprint of Hortus Veitchii can be obtained from

Christine Fry MSB


Getting up close and personal

19 October 2012

DC Zoo 1An eclectic mix of about 40 members attended – students, oldies and those who have not been in contact for a while. We last visited the zoo in 2000 and much had changed.

Dr Amy Plowman, head of field conservation and research, introduced us to the scientific work of the Zoo and Trust. In small groups, members of the science team led us round the zoo, highlighting key species in their research. The higher primates provided interesting insight into group dynamics. A hot buffet lunch followed in a highly convivial atmosphere, with members exchanging ideas and discoveries, and catching up with each other's news.

Sated with delicious food, we were put into interest groups, experiencing exclusive behind the scenes visits to chosen areas - Avian Breeding Centre, Bio-secure Amphibian Breeding Unit, and Giraffe Quarters. We loved feeding giraffes, (and visiting in threes on tip toe, the recently born giraffe baby). Some chose to visit the state of the art greenhouses accommodating vertical hydroponic growing systems, (Verticrop) - the produce of which formed part of our lunch.

A splendid visit much enjoyed. The staff was especially generous with their time, enthusiasm and expertise. Many of us wandered around the zoo afterwards until it closed.

Christine Fry MSB