Category Archives: Books

Pseudoscorpions, springtails and colourful eggs

“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.

Me and Steve looking cool in our waders. A magnifying headband is now on my wishlist.
Me and Steve looking cool in our waders. A magnifying headband is now on my wishlist to complete the look.

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.

Pseudoscorpion Neobisium maritimum showing off its fabulous pincers.
Pseudoscorpion Neobisium maritimum showing off its fabulous pincers.

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.

It's no wonder pseudoscorpions are overlooked - they're only a few milimetres long and live hidden away in cracks in the rocks.
It’s no wonder pseudoscorpions are overlooked – they’re only a few milimetres long and live hidden away in cracks in the rocks.

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.

Blob of the day - My first Lamellaria latens. This is a sea snail but the shell is internal.
Blob of the day – My first Lamellaria latens. This is a sea snail but the shell is internal.

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.

Bright yellow eggs under the tail of a long-clawed porcelain crab
Bright yellow eggs under the tail of a long-clawed porcelain crab
Her eggs are visible even when she's standing upright.
Her eggs are visible even when she’s standing upright.

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.

The Xantho pilipes crab holds her huge clutch of eggs in place with special feathery grips on her tail.
The Xantho pilipes crab holds her huge clutch of eggs in place with special feathery grips on her tail.

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.

The front of this crab sticks out, but we decide it's probably an unusual Green shore crab.
The front of this crab sticks out, but we decide it’s probably an unusual Green 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).

Scorpion fish eggs being scavenged by marine springtails (Anurida maritima)
Scorpion fish eggs being scavenged by marine 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.

The pink spaghetti eggs of the Sea hare (Aplysia punctata) - a type of sea slug
The pink spaghetti eggs of the Sea hare (Aplysia punctata) – a type of sea slug

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.

Topknot flatfish showing the classic dark stripe across the eyes.
Topknot flatfish showing the classic dark stripe across the 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.

Julie with her spider crab
Julie with her spider crab

Junior discovers a Green shore crab with a classic clutch of orange eggs under her tail, to complete our kaleidoscope of crab egg colours.

Junior's shore crab showing its orange egg mass
Junior’s shore crab showing its orange egg mass

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.

Sting winkle eggs capsules showing the eggs inside.
Sting winkle eggs capsules showing the eggs inside.
Netted dog whelk egg capsules
Netted dog whelk egg capsules

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.

Searching in vain for spiny starfish and baby bull huss/cat sharks at Hannafore
Searching in vain for spiny starfish and baby bull huss/cat sharks at Hannafore

A Winter Walk

Standing on the beach it’s hard to imagine how anything survives in our seas at this time of year. Fierce Atlantic winds send the waves surging high onto the shore, exploding against the rocks and blowing hair or sand into my eyes whichever way I turn. Yet on these dark winter days, when many of our land animals have migrated or gone into hibernation, most marine life is clinging on and waiting for spring.

Wintertime is tough even for the hardiest mariners. The strandline is strewn with those that haven’t made it Continue reading A Winter Walk

The Selfish Shellfish – The story of a Cornish Rock Pool

It feels like we’re living out a scene from the children’s picture book about a Cornish rock pool, The Selfish Shellfish.

Grandma Paint Pot at Castle Beach
Grandma Paint Pot at Castle Beach

 I’m with the author, Grandma Paint Pot (Donna Painter), on Castle Beach in Falmouth, where her story is set. The tide is rising fast and we’re slithering about on a wet rock while we watch limpets, top shells and anemones coming to life as the waves push in. Continue reading The Selfish Shellfish – The story of a Cornish Rock Pool