“We’re going to meet some friends to look for pseudoscorpions,” I say to Junior. “Have you heard of them before?”
I’m expecting him to say no. I only heard of them myself quite recently and although I bought myself a book all about them last year, I’ve yet to get round to looking for them.
“Of course,” Junior shrugs. “They eat springtails.” It’s in one of his books apparently.
We find Steve Trewhella and Julie Hatcher on Hannafore beach, taking photos for their new book, The Essential Guide to Rock Pooling, due out in 2019.
Steve has recently been specialising in finding and studying marine insects and other air-breathing invertebrates that live on the shore, hiding in cracks in the rocks. It seems improbable that beetles and acrachnids can survive out here in the marine environment, but Steve tells me that they’re everywhere, and just get overlooked.
He prises away a piece of rock and points to a minute ant-like insect that’s scurrying across the stone. A rove beetle. It doesn’t take him long to find what he’s been searching for, a pseudoscorpion.
I borrow Steve’s headband magnifier, which is a must-have item for anyone who wants to look like a mad scientist.
It takes me a few seconds to find what I’m looking for and under the magnifier, with its pincers raised towards me, it looks alarmingly like a real scorpion. Pseudoscorpions lack the stinging tail typical of the true scorpions, but they have another way of capturing their prey; they use a poisonous gland in their claws.
Neobisium maritimum is the only species of pseudoscorpion that can live out here on the shore, although others may be found at the top of the beach above the strandline or on cliffs and many species are found in gardens and houses, with one species (Cheridium museorum) even specialising in eating book mites.
This pseudoscorpion seems quite at home exploring the back of Steve’s hand, but its favourite hideouts are deep in the joints of the rocks, where it lurks, hunting for springtails and other tiny prey.
I’m meant to be helping Steve and Julie find spiny starfish and bull huss shark egg cases, but it’s too windy to access the best areas. Undeterred we see what turns up and this beach never disappoints.
A blob gets me excited (as blobs often do). I frequently see Lamellaria perspicua here – it’s a kind of cross between a snail and a slug and has a syphon tube sticking out the front, which makes them look like mini daleks. This one is different. It’s paler, flatter and doesn’t have the usual crusty appearance. Finally, I’ve found a Lamellaria latens.
Having failed to find any eggs when filming with Countryfile looking for signs of spring, I’m now seeing them everywhere. Every other crab I find seems to be in berry and there’s a wonderful variety in the colour of the eggs between species.
This long-clawed porcelain crab is around the size of my thumb nail and has a small clutch of eggs to match. I don’t remember ever seeing the eggs of this species before. They’re a rich lemon colour, visible under the female’s tail even when she’s upright because they’re so bright.
Also sporting colourful eggs, this Xantho pilipes crab is wandering near a patch of sea grass I’ve not seen on this beach before. This time, the eggs are a deep burgundy red and there are so many of them it’s amazing the crab can still walk.
Steve finds an unusual crab with an arched front, but otherwise like a Green shore crab. We think it might be a species we’ve not seen before and take lots of photos but decide in the end it’s probably just a weirdly shaped shore crab.
It’s quite late in the season now for scorpion fish eggs, and the clutch that Julie finds are looking dried out and generally unhealthy, although there are still eyes visible in there. The dead eggs are being scavenged by hordes of hungry springtails (Anurida maritima).
It makes me wonder if there’s a pseudoscorpion nearby, waiting to guzzle the springtails up.
Everywhere I step there seem to be sea hares, roaming the sea floor and feasting on the freshly sprouted seaweeds. I even find my first tangle of ‘pink spaghetti’ of the season – these are the eggs of the sea hare.
Other-Half, who has been specialising in fish catching recently, manages to scoop up a topknot flatfish. This one is a good size and has the classic highwayman-style dark mask pattern across its eyes.
These fish specialise in living on the shore and have a specially adapted sucker fin allowing them to cling on to the underside of rocks.
The finds come in thick and fast. Julie and Other-Half both come across fully-grown spider crabs covered in seaweeds, pretending to be rocks.
Junior discovers a Green shore crab with a classic clutch of orange eggs under her tail, to complete our kaleidoscope of crab egg colours.
Not to outdone, there are mollusc eggs everywhere too. I see clutches of sting-winkle eggs under every overhang and there are plenty of netted dog-whelk eggs on the seaweed too.
It’s almost a given that you never find what you’re looking for. There’s not a spiny starfish in sight when normally I see them everywhere. We manage to find some catshark egg cases, but most of them are already hatched. It doesn’t matter. What we do find is incredible and I’m so excited to have seen my first pseudoscorpion. As Louis said on Countryfile the other week, there’s always something!
If you’d like to know more about the insects and other animals that specialise in living on the shore, Steve and Julie’s book The Essential Guide to Beachcombing and the Strandline is a brilliant resource.