soil

Secrets of the Natural World. Thurs 11 Jun, 6-8pm

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Join us on for an evening in the Museum on Thursday 11th June to uncover secrets from the natural world.

Curiosity drives scientists to try to understand complexity in the natural world. Join us for an evening of science conversation with scientists from The University of Manchester, Richard Bardgett, Reinmar Hager, Jon Pittman and Giles Johnson. Each scientist will be on hand to share their passion for their research, with lightening talks and hands-on demonstrations of their work in understanding complex natural systems, both above and below ground.

“A Journey into the Underworld” will illustrate research around soil ecosystems and carbon cycling, using exhibits of soil profiles and their vast biological diversity. “Mother Knows Best” will illustrate work around the genetics of social behaviour in animals using live invertebrates and choice chambers. “A Clean Sweep” will examine the adaptations of plants to natural radiation and their use in bioremediation. Here visitors will be able to investigate bioremediation of natural radiation using Geiger counters in simulated scenarios. The “The Light Fantastic” will explore how plants respond to their environment, including changing climate, by extracting chlorophylls, measuring chlorophyll absorption spectra and photosynthesis.

This event is supported by the Natural Environment Research Council as part of their Summer of Science.

Book online at mcrmuseum.eventbrite.com or phone 0161 275 2648, free, adults.

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Stratgies for low fertility soils

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As a member of the pea family, the Nootka lupin has root nodules for nitrogen fixation. We’ve also seen other peas, clovers and vetch plants capable of fixing nitrogen as we’ve travelled around Iceland.

 

Nodules on a lupin root
Nodules on a lupin root

Carnivorous plants, however, have a unique way of gaining nutrients which are not available in the soil. The butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) is quite common in a lot of the damp environments that we’ve visited. The succulent leaves are covered with tiny glands which secrete fluids containing digestive enzymes. Small insects are trapped on the sticky surface of the leaf, and are digested by the enzymes. The fluid is then absorbed back into the leaf along with essential nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus which have been released from the insect corpse.

Butterwort rosette with small insects on leaves
Butterwort rosette with small insects on leaves

Common butterwort has a pretty purple flower held on a long stalk to keep pollinating insects away from the danger of the leaves. At this time of year plants have mature seed capsules.

Seed capsule
Seed capsule

However, as well as producing seed, the Common butterwort can also reproduce vegetatively, producing offshoots and new plantlets.

Spreading colony of butterworts
Spreading colony of butterworts

Hrísey – Pearl of Eyjafjörður

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Today we went to visit the island of Hrísey in Eyjafjörður, a quick drive north of Akureryi and a short ferry ride across from Árskógssandur.

Harbour at Hrísey
Harbour at Hrísey

Hrísey is the second largest island in Iceland (after Heimaey off the south coast) and it was looking magical in the sunshine. The island’s name comes from the Icelandic word for the dwarf birch (Betula nana), hrís, suggesting that this was common here at the time of settlement. On this visit I found several clumps, but it’s been a much more prominent part of the vegetation in other places we’ve visited.

Dwarf birch, looking out at eastern side of the fjord.
Dwarf birch, looking out at eastern side of the fjord.

The island has not been grazed by sheep since 1974 and is now covered by low-growing shrubs and heath-land plants such as heather, crowberry, bilberries, mountain avens and woolly willow. The island is a birdwatching destination as over 40 species are known to breed there.

Heathland with heather in bloom
Heathland with heather in bloom

However, I was particularly interested in a plant new-comer, the Nootka lupin (Lupinus nootkatensis).

Spot the lupin plant...
Spot the lupin plant…

Introduced from Alaska for land reclamation, the Nootka lupin has taken to Iceland and has naturalized in many parts of the country. The lupin changes soil chemistry as it has root nodules containing nitrogen fixing rhizobacteria. Rhizobacteria fix nitrogen from the air, making it available for the plant to utilise and leading to soil enrichment. On the island of Hrísey, another introduced species, Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) has started to grow within the patches of lupins where the soil is more nitrogen rich.

Cut lupins
Cut lupins

Many of the patches of lupins we found on Hrísey had been cut back, perhaps to try to decrease their vigor and allow light to reach the ground. Lupins grow taller than the low heathland plants and can shade them out, but they do not colonise vegetated heath as rapidly as bare ground so cutting may maintain the size of a patch. Cutting had spurred some of the lupins into some late-season flowering and so I collected some examples for the Manchester Museum herbarium.

Close-up of single lupin flower
Close-up of single lupin flower

Lupins are a bit like marmite, however, and so while some people hate them, others think they are a welcome addition to the flora. They are undeniably pretty and I would think that the bumblebees like them too. On Hrísey we spoke to Júlla, manager of the  Júllabúð store…..definitely a fan.