Laura Mullholland tells us all about the stranger side of being an ecologist at the Canal & River Trust.
We’re one of those ‘ology’ subjects meaning ‘a subject area’ or ‘a branch of science’ and the ‘eco’ bit means that we look at the relationships between animals and plants and their surroundings. But what do we actually do? It’s a question I’m often asked so I’ve put together this handy guide to highlight just a few of the things we do.
We like to sniff poo. The correct name for otter poo is ‘spraint’ and it smells just like jasmine tea or faintly fishy. We have to sniff it because sometimes mink poo can look very similar to spraint and we need to know which species we have.
Bat poo is where the crushing comes in. Bat poo can look a lot like mouse poo and it’s often found in similar places. However, if you rub bat poo between your fingers, it will crush to dust and you’ll be able to see the small shiny pieces of insect fragments. Mouse poo will squish if it’s fresh and is very hard to crush if it’s old.
We can also identify badger poo, water vole poo (pictured) and bank vole poo.
Ok, some bats are easier to tell apart but there are two species in the Myotis genus, who are best split out by looking at their penis. The Brandt’s bat has a club shaped penis whilst the whiskered bat’s penis looks more like a noodle.
If you have a female, you need to use the other identification technique which is to look at the shape of a very particular tiny tooth.
… and the woodland, and grassland and heathland. We even have a special set of colouring pencils and a colour by numbers-style book, which tells us how we need to map these habitats.
This is particularly important when working on big projects like housing developments, so that we can better understand what might be lost and where we can improve areas to make up for the loss.
Take an ecologist to an area with lots of hazel trees and it won’t be long until they start showing you their nuts. Squirrels are lazy and break the nuts open.
Voles, mice and dormice will hold their nuts in their front paws and bite chunks out of the shell to get to the insides, leaving a little hole in the top or side. Mice and voles take lots of bites leaving little lines and scuff marks, whereas dormice take one big bite and spin the nut as they open it up using their bottom teeth, which leaves a very smooth circular line around the completed hole.
We are very lucky in the UK to have one of the final strongholds of great crested newts. These fantastic creatures have suffered from habitat loss across Europe and they really are our very own native mini-dragons.
We use special traps to catch them when they’re breeding so that we can get an idea of how many newts live in an area and know where to focus our protection efforts. We have to set the traps in the water at a very specific angle so that the newts have access to an air bubble and they have to be put out just before it gets dark. We then check them and release any captured newts the following day just after sunrise before they overheat in the sun.
It’s really helpful because it means that even if we talk about an animal or plant which has different local or common names, we all know that we’re talking about the same thing.
This is particularly important when we want to cultivate native British plants and flowers along the towpath as many of them have lots of different common names and we don’t want to accidentally plant something that is alien to its surroundings.
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