8. UK Wildlife with Savanna van Mesdag

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Today we are very lucky to have a guest post from Savanna van Mesdag who is a University of Glasgow PhD student, based at the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences.

Savanna has created two different sets of activities depending upon your age. Please choose the information suitable for your age.


Interesting Facts About UK Wildlife

I’m currently learning about UK wildlife. Wild living things in the UK may not seem as exciting as, say, African or Australian wildlife at first (they have animals like elephants and kangaroos, after all!), but we actually have some really interesting types, or species, of living things.

We have many different species of plants. Some of these are very important for human beings. Some, such as trees, help the environment by making oxygen, which we need to breathe.

Can you think of any species of tree that live in the UK?

Some species include Oak, the Scots Pine, Beech and different types of Cherry tree. If you guessed another species of tree, why not look the tree up online to learn more about it (and/or have a parent/guardian of yours help you)?

In the UK, we also have a lot of small flowering plants, which most of us call flowers. Flowers are not beautiful because they ‘want to be’, all wildflowers have shapes, sizes and colours that help them in nature. They just happen to be beautiful! Flowers have evolved, or grown, many different ways to survive and help them produce seeds for the next generation. In order to survive, many flowers need a helping hand.

What sort of living things help plants, as well as using plants so they can live too? Animals!

In the UK, we have many species of animals, but only a small number of these species are ‘big’ animals like human beings (us!), deer, foxes and badgers. There are many, many more species of insect! Insects, along with other ‘creepy crawlies’, invertebrates, may be much smaller than many animals living in the UK, but they play a very important role in nature.

Think about when you’ve seen insects and what they have been up to. Why do you think they were doing what you saw them doing?

You might have seen some insects feeding on nectar from flowers. When insects like bumblebees fly up to a flower and feed on nectar that is made inside the flower, their legs touch and stick to pollen, which is also produced by the flower. Pollen grains are very small, and they are needed to allow seeds to grow into plants. Bumblebees and other pollinating insects fly around from flower to flower, leaving pollen here and there as they go. By spreading the pollen, pollinating insects can allow plants that might be quite far away from each other to make seeds, which is very important for the flowering plants. So three cheers for the pollinating insects, helping the flowers!

Bumblebees

Other insects feed on dead animals, which are sometimes called carrion. Carrion is not a nice thing for human beings, but many insects enjoy it! By eating all of the carrion, these carrion-eating insects, including carrion beetles, help to get rid of all of the dead animals that would otherwise be lying around all over the place. This is most definitely a good thing!

There are thousands of species of insect living in the UK. Some of these species are very similar to one another, but they all have different roles to play in nature. In order to understand nature, some people spend a great amount of time identifying insects, making sure they know what species they are! Sometimes this can be very challenging but, no need to worry! Some species of insect are actually easy to identify! Below are some common species of insect which look quite different from some other species and so should be quite easy to identify.

The Peacock Butterfly is a common species of butterfly in the UK. The good news is that you can often find these in gardens, so for many of you it’s a safe species to look out for at this time of year. The caterpillars, which are the ‘baby stage’ of butterflies, feed on nettles, so it can be a bit tricky to look for caterpillars as you can risk being stung by the stinging nettles. Luckily, the adults fly around all over the place and so they’re much easier to look for. They spend a lot of time pollinating flowers as they fly around, so they’re very good insects indeed!

Peacock Butterfly
Peacock Butterfly

The Common Wasp is another species that can often be found in gardens. While this is a very pretty insect, don’t get too close to it, as it could sting you and this hurts a lot! While wasps might seem nasty to some people, they too have a role to play in nature. They help to break down and eat a lot of dead wood, which can be very messy and potentially give you nasty splinters. So, while wasps can be rather horrid and sting you, they do help people out as well.

Why don’t you do more reading and learning about UK plants and insects? Enjoy!

Here are the names of some organisations that have lots of information about UK wildlife. You can look these up yourself or have a parent/guardian of yours help you out.

  • Plantlife (Discover Wild plants – has link to kids activities).
  • Buglife (Children and Schools – has links to childrens’ activities Children - has link to previous newsletter editions for children).
  • Butterfly Conservation (Family fun from home – links to various family and child activities).
  • Woodland Trust (Family activities to do from home – recent pages on the website provide activity ideas that can be done from home during this time).
  • Scottish Wildlife Trust (Learning zone – many wildlife-related activities for children of different ages).
Common Wasp
Common Wasp

Interesting Facts About UK Wildlife

I’m currently carrying out a 4-year research project, at the University of Glasgow. While I’m learning many things during my PhD, one of my study areas is UK wildlife (or, at least, some types of UK wildlife). Wild living things in the UK may not seem as exciting as, say, African or Australian wildlife at first, but it turns out that we have some very interesting species of living things.

In the UK, we have many different species of plants. Some of these are very important for the health of the planet, as well as human health. Many trees, for example, can take in great amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. By converting the carbon dioxide into energy to help the tree to grow, the trees release large amounts of oxygen, which we require for our survival.

Can you think of species of tree that live in the UK?

Some UK species include Oak, the Scots Pine, Beech, Hazel, Willow and different types of Cherry tree. If you guessed another species of tree, why not look the tree up online to learn more about it?

In the UK, we also have a lot of smaller flowering plants, which most of us call flowers. Technically, most of the native trees we have in the UK are in the same ‘group’ as flowering plants, even though they look very different and are much larger. We also have a lot of flowering plants of ‘intermediate’ height, some of which you may be familiar with, including gorse and broom (which have yellow flowers that smell like coconut!). All wildflowers have shapes, sizes and colours that help them in nature. Flowers have evolved many different ways to survive and reproduce (producing seeds or similar structures). In order to survive, many flowering plants need a helping hand.

What sort of living things help plants, as well as using plants for their own survival? Animals!

In the UK, we have many species of animals, but only a small number of these species are ‘big’ animals like human beings, deer, foxes and badgers. There are many, many more species of insect. Insects, along with other ‘creepy crawlies’, invertebrates (animals that do not have backbones), may be much smaller than many animals living in the UK, but they play a very important role in nature.

Think about when you’ve seen insects and what they have been up to. How would you describe their behaviour? Were they feeding? Were they staying vigilant and/or running away from potential danger? Were they perhaps mating or fighting?

Insects play many roles in nature. Specifically, they are part of their ecosystems. Ecosystems are ‘units’ in nature which comprise a number of species which interact with one another, as well as their physical environment. For example, if you have a back garden with plenty of flowers and perhaps a tree or two, that’s an ecosystem! The trees and the other plants in the garden interact with invertebrates and other animals, and vice versa. During my fourth-year research project, I’ll be studying how certain plant species and certain invertebrate species may interact with one another and how they rely on each other for survival.

Pollination is an important role that many insects, such as butterflies, bees, bumblebees and moths play in ecosystems. When insects like bumblebees fly up to a flower and feed on nectar, their legs touch and stick to pollen produced by the flower. Bumblebees and other pollinating insects fly around from flower to flower in search for more nectar. By spreading the pollen as they go, pollinating insects can allow plants that might be quite far away from each other to reproduce. Let’s give a big hooray for pollinating insects!

Bumblebees

Other insects feed on dead animals, which are sometimes called carrion. By eating all carrion, carrion-eating invertebrates, including carrion beetles, help to get rid of all of the dead animals that would otherwise be a great nuisance outdoors. Carrion does not just look terrible and upsetting, it can also disease to people and other animals, so having insects eat much of this carrion is a very good thing indeed.

There are thousands of species of insect living in the UK. This does not include the many other species of invertebrates, which include animals such as snails, slugs and woodlice, which are not technically insects. While some insect species are very similar to one another, they all have different roles to play in their ecosystems. In order to better understand ecosystems and the relationships between species within them, some people spend a great amount of time identifying insects, making sure they know what species they are! Sometimes this can be very challenging but, luckily, there are plenty of UK insect species that are easy to identify. Some of these easy species are shown below…

The Peacock Butterfly is a common species of butterfly in the UK. The good news is that you can often find these in gardens, so for many of you it’s a safe species to look out for at this time of year. The caterpillars, which are represent the first life cycle of butterflies, feed on nettles, so it can be tricky to look for caterpillars as you can risk being stung by the nettles. Luckily, the adults fly around to a few different types of flower, so they’re much easier to look out for. They spend a lot of time pollinating flowers, so they’re a very good species indeed!

Peacock Butterfly
Peacock Butterfly

The Common Wasp is another species that can often be found in gardens. While this is a very pretty insect, it’s potentially quite dangerous to humans as it can sting. This can cause very bad allergic reactions in some people, so it’s best to be careful when they’re around! While wasps might seem nasty, they too have a role to play in ecosystems. They help to break down and eat a lot of dead wood, which can be very messy and problematic if left lying around (although some dead wood is a good thing for many insects!). So, while wasps can sting you, they do help people out as well.

Why don’t you do more reading and learning about UK plants and insects? There are plenty of good organisations who post interesting and up-to-date information on UK wildlife, I’ll include the names of some of these organisations below. Enjoy!

Organisations that have more information about UK wildlife (especially plants and invertebrates):

  • Plantlife.
  • Buglife.
  • PButterfly Conservation.
  • Woodland Trust.
  • RHS (Royal Horticultural Society).
  • Trees for Life.
  • Scottish Wildlife Trust.
  • RZSS, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland - they run Edinburgh Zoo and the Highland Wildlife Park and they do much conservation work, even for UK species! You can find out more about their work on UK species such as the Pine Hoverfly and the Beaver on their RZSS website.
Common Wasp
Common Wasp
Savanna van Mesdag
Savanna van Mesdag is a University of Glasgow PhD student, based at the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences.

"I am a University of Glasgow PhD student, based at the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences. During my PhD I will research the geodiversity and biodiversity of legacy steel slag sites. I will, hopefully next year, visit sites where steel slag has been dumped (near steelworks such as Ravenscraig) to collect slag samples and record plants and/or invertebrates present on the site. I am keen to see whether or not there are relationships between the composition of the slag (the elements and minerals) and the living things present, particularly the plants. I have a biology background, so it has been a good learning curve for me to incorporate the more familiar world of plants and animals with the less familiar but equally interesting world of geochemistry and mineralogy. I have previous experience doing educational volunteering, mostly with children and families. Most of this was animal- or nature-based, for example, for a few years I was a Leader of an RSPB Wildlife Explorers group (for primary school-aged children) in the south Edinburgh area. I am keen to do more educational volunteering during my PhD, to communicate aspects of my research with others and to engage people with science and scientific thinking. During this difficult time, I am very keen to chat to people online, to talk about my area and related areas of science, as well as what it is like to be a student through different levels of university. I can do this through a number of online platforms, including Zoom, Skype or Microsoft Teams. Please contact me if you would be interested in organising a small presentation online and/or having a Q&A session."

Wildlife Quiz Younger Children
Wildlife Quiz Younger Children (PDF)
Wildlife Quiz Older Children
Wildlife Quiz Older Children (PDF)

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