I have a habit of accepting a challenge, usually made to myself. I talk to myself constantly so this sort of thing comes up a lot. A few years ago, I set myself three collembolan-themed challenges to achieve in the UK. Find and photograph two of the rarest UK springtails, and find a new species. The UK isn't that big. How hard could it be?
1. Caprainea marginata. (Confirmed in one place in the UK.)
A year after I first set my first challenge, I was up in Ebbor Gorge, near Wookey Hole, Somerset on a cold day in December. It's a very beautiful, steep-sided place, full of rare flowers in summer and an ancient woodland, which in the UK can only be a few thousand years old at best. After finding the usual Dicyrtomina and Calvatomina species, I went off the path for an explore. In a steep-sided gorge, this always involves going upwards. So half way up the gorge side, after scrambling across loose scree and balancing on a ledge the width of my feet, I reached an interesting looking and smaller ledge, covered in dead leaves. Under the first leaf I turned over, I found a small, very round, 1mm, rusty-coloured little springtail. Caprainea marginata. The first of the three.
In all, it appeared to be confined to an area about a metre long and less wide. Even though I hunted for weeks after, I never found them anywhere else, not even just below the ledge of their tiny home.
2. Neelides minutus. (Confirmed in one place in the UK.)
Even more so than C. marginata, The second challenge of Neelides minutus was always going to be tricky. Far smaller, at 0.6mm and an amazing bluish grey. This one took me longer. It's very elusive and lives only in deep leaf litter and top soil layers. And really tiny. It was only after I returned from my first trip to Tasmania and New Zealand that I succeeded. And it was an accident. I was bored one day in January and went for a walk to a local beech wood in Somerset, Snooks Covert with my camera. As a private, pheasant shooting woodland, it always felt a little risky crouched over in the gloom, with occasional shots breaking the cold winter silence. And being managed, it seemed highly unlikely to have anything much. But after rolling over a few large logs there was an unmistakeable hunched walk of a tiny Neelidae, looking decidedly bluish. Found it. Number two, check.
3. New Collembola species.
My third challenge. I felt positive. Who knew what was out there. There were probably loads of new stuff everywhere, just waiting to be discovered.
In the end, my salvation came through an exotic species. Over the years, UK gardeners have imported plants from around the world, and often, eggs and live animals come in with them. Sometimes, a temperate climate is just what the springtail doctor ordered and a species will settle down and make a go of it. Sometimes, a tropical species will make a life for itself in a hothouse. But being able to adapt to an outside climate usually works out better in the end.
So one beautiful day in April, I was watching Sminthurides aquaticus on my pond, in Dundon, Somerset. They're a common species that lives on and at the side of ponds, performing amazing courtship rituals with each other and generally being very cool. This time, amongst the large, white, 1mm S. aquaticus females, companionably grazing on the algae, was a much smaller and weirdly coloured female. Ginger with a longitudinal white stripe running around her abdomen like a tidal mark. I took photographs and posted them on line. There was immediate interest from Frans Janssens, who runs Collembola.org and then from Peter Shaw, the UK Collembola recorder. I sent off specimens and in the end, provided the holotype for the species, which is now in the British Museum. It's another aquatic springtail, a Sminthurides species, also found a year or so before in Russia. In the last few years in the UK, it's turned up around Nottingham and a few other places too. It's still awaiting a name, poor thing.
That's the three. Done. Now, unfortunately there's another challenge set. One day, I have to have a species named after me...