Where the wild things are: wildlife, natural flora and fungi at Kew
A surprising abundance of wildlife can be found in the Gardens – Sandra Bell outlines how and why Kew keeps track of them.
24 Sep 2009
Honey bees at Kew
Wildlife may not be the main attraction at Kew, but even the casual visitor is almost certain to notice some aspect of its natural history, whether plant, animal or fungus.
A closer look at almost any of these groups will reveal the wealth of Kew’s extraordinary biodiversity, which still astonishes us with new finds despite having been catalogued since the 1870s. Staff and volunteers, visiting specialists and the public all contribute to our ever-expanding knowledge of the creatures that live in or visit the Gardens.
Chance sightings by visitors
Members of the public are especially helpful in reporting wildlife that may be passing through – and which we might otherwise easily miss – such as a hobby (a delicate little falcon that feeds on dragonflies in the summer) or a fast-flying hummingbird hawk moth sipping nectar on the wing. Many visitors also delight in spotting animals that are normally largely nocturnal.
These include foxes that are regularly seen in daylight at Kew, trotting along with apparent unconcern, badgers, which sometimes come above ground during the day, and young tawny owls, which often perch in full view, noisily demanding food from their parents.
Kew staff and volunteers contribute chance sightings too, and are also involved in surveying and monitoring wildlife. Kew’s wildflowers and naturalised plants have been surveyed, first in the 1870s and over the last two decades, location by location so nothing is missed.
A full list of the flora will be published for Kew’s 250th anniversary in 2009.
Several wild plants, such as meadow saxifrage and chamomile, still thrive at Kew long after development has taken away their habitats in the surrounding area.
Kew has the greatest number of fungi recorded per acre anywhere in the world, due to the zeal with which its mycologists have collected and identified them for more than a century.
Long-serving staff have been able to observe how some ring-forming species, such as Leucopaxillus giganteus, just inside Brentford Gate, have grown many feet in diameter over the years and track the amazing proliferation of bark-mulch species new to the UK, such as redlead roundhead (Stropharia aurantiaca, now known as Leratiomyces ceres).
From creepy crawlies to bumblebees
Other recent surveys include spiders, lichens, millipedes and centipedes, mosses, molluscs and daphnia (or water fleas as they are more commonly known).
Monitoring is by definition a regular activity, although the time interval between checks varies. For example, some bird monitoring is carried out annually, with the intention of comparing numbers from year to year over decades, while weekly bird walks reveal more detail.
Butterfly monitoring is also carried out weekly, between the beginning of April and the end of September each year, so that the rise and ebb of each generation of all the species present can be tracked. Kew’s data are then compared with other national and local sets of information, as the same monitoring method is common to all, and this enables comparisons in trends to be made.
In this way we know that the increase in gatekeeper butterflies at Kew mirrors a national trend in the abundance of this species, while the rise in reports of marbled whites at Kew reflects a similar increase in Surrey.
Twice-weekly bumblebee monitoring over the winter of 2007/08 has demonstrated that the queens of least one species, Bombus terrestris, are now active throughout the winter, feeding on the nectar of strawberry trees (Arbutus unedo) initially, much as they do in Southern Europe, and then later favouring a small selection of winter-flowering shrubs.
They fly quite a distance to visit favourite plants to feed, by-passing other apparently suitable flowering shrubs on the way, for reasons that are currently unknown. It has been suggested that they’re able to select those plants with the highest nectar-sugar content.
Publishing lists of Kew's wildlife
Since 1905, lists of Kew’s wildlife have been published regularly in the scientific journal Kew Bulletin, and now both historical and current records are databased and processed so that management of parts of the Gardens can be improved for wildlife.
Author: Sandra Bell
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