The Pobble who has no toes

I read with fascination this week that the genes in charge of growing appendages (arms, legs, fingers, toes, wings,  tentacles…) are now thought to predate the point at which our lineage diverged from that of the octopus. This is despite the fact that octopi, insects, and vertebrates each evolved their very different limbs independently. The same gene determines the number of fingers we have, and the number of suckers an octopus has, and Martin Cohn and his colleagues have now shown that this genetic program dates back at least 500 million years.*

This article inspired me to take a close look at fingers and toes. It turned out to be quite hard to find good photos in my archives: most of the time animals stand in long grass, or in muddy water, hiding their feet, but here goes. (None of these posts pretends to be a full scientific survey: the limiting factor is what I have photos of.)

I think I’ll start with us mammals. Unlike the Pobble, they all have toes, but the number of toes varies from six to one….

Mountain gorillas, not surprisingly, have the the same number of fingers and toes as us:


Giant otters also have five toes on each foot, but they are webbed:

Evening grooming sessions, in next few shots and videos

Elephants have five toes, but they walk on tiptoe, so the toe nails are the only way to count.  Like pandas, they have a sixth “toe”. It is inside their foot, and it may help distribute their weight better.

Elephant naptime

Lions, and other cats, have five front toes and four back ones. Here are the five:


and here are the four:


Hippos have four webbed toes on each foot, supporting their enormous weight (you can’t see the fourth toe in the photo):


Warthogs, like all pigs, have four toes on each foot but they walk only on the middle two, holding the others clear of the ground, for all the world like a ballerina en pointe. (At speed, these smaller claws may touch the ground. ) So really they have two proper toes.

Common warthogs,mother and baby, with Red-billed Oxpecker

All tapirs, including this South American one in the Pantanal, have four front toes and three back ones. They are the only hoofed animal like this.


Rhinoceri have three toes on each foot:

Indian one-horned rhino

Giraffe (and cattle and deer) have two toes, and the dew claws are insignificant:


Zebras, and all equines, have all five digits merged into one toe (aka hoof) per foot:

Young male zebra playing

It’s also worth remembering that our bodies are left-right symmetrical, so our big toes are on the inside of each foot. Our development thus has not just to get the count right, but arrange each foot appropriately for which side of the body it emerges from. How clever is that?

Next time, we’ll look at birds.

‘The Pobble Who Has No Toes’

The Pobble who has no toes
Had once as many as we;
When they said "Some day you may lose them all;"
He replied "Fish, fiddle-de-dee!"
And his Aunt Jobiska made him drink
Lavender water tinged with pink,
For she said "The World in general knows
There's nothing so good for a Pobble's toes!"

The Pobble who has no toes
Swam across the Bristol Channel;
But before he set out he wrapped his nose
In a piece of scarlet flannel.
For his Aunt Jobiska said "No harm
Can come to his toes if his nose is warm;
And it's perfectly known that a Pobble's toes
Are safe, -- provided he minds his nose!"

The Pobble swam fast and well,
And when boats or ships came near him,
He tinkledy-blinkledy-winkled a bell,
So that all the world could hear him.
And all the Sailors and Admirals cried,
When they saw him nearing the further side -
"He has gone to fish for his Aunt Jobiska's
Runcible Cat with crimson whiskers!"

But before he touched the shore,
The shore of the Bristol Channel,
A sea-green porpoise carried away
His wrapper of scarlet flannel.
And when he came to observe his feet,
Formerly garnished with toes so neat,
His face at once became forlorn,
On perceiving that all his toes were gone!

And nobody ever knew,
From that dark day to the present,
Whoso had taken the Pobble's toes,
In a manner so far from pleasant.
Whether the shrimps, or crawfish grey,
Or crafty Mermaids stole them away -
Nobody knew: and nobody knows
How the Pobble was robbed of his twice five toes!

The Pobble who has no toes
Was placed in a friendly Bark,
And they rowed him back, and carried him up
To his Aunt Jobiska's Park.
And she made him a feast at his earnest wish
Of eggs and buttercups fried with fish, -
And she said "It's a fact the whole world knows,
That Pobbles are happier without their toes!"

Edward Lear


*Here is a short summary of Martin Cohn’s findings:









Nature’s bride-tossed bouquet*

On the marshes in Aldeburgh in Suffolk there was a solitary tree-sized elder, full of small birds. A single twig reached leftwards against the sky, and provided a convenient perch for a just-fledged bluetit chick:

Juvenile blue tits

Last weekend the elderflowers (Sambucus nigra) were still in full bloom in the hedgerows:


Close up, the flowerheads are exquisite:


A sedge warbler posed on the same elder-twig:


In Sussex, in the elder-bordered fields, I found these exquisite flowers. I doubt if many of you can guess what they are?

Dock flowers

They are the flowers of dock plants, Rumex obtusifolius. They are no-one’s favorite: scruffy, hard to eradicate weeds, with tall skinny greenish-brownish flowerheads covered in minute unimpressive flowers that we rarely stop to admire. The flowers redden as they mature into these miniature bells. No-one writes poems about dock flowers, but next time, look closely.

In England of course, we pick the elderflowers for elderflower cordial, delicious drunk on its own or with champagne. Here is Jamie Oliver’s recipe:

* My title comes from the first verse of a poem by Malachy Reynolds,  The Elderflower’s Lament. 

I am the elderflower
Wedded to the hedgerows
Nature’s bride-tossed bouquet.
Not gaudy like the rose….

Follow him on Twitter here:



The dandelion deserves its close-up too

Here is a common dandelion, Taraxacum officinale. Boring!


But the wasp does not agree. She is busily foraging for nectar, deep inside the 200-odd tiny florets that compose the flower-head.


The tall curly things are the stigmas, covered in pollen:DSC09930-2

and the pollen collects on the body of the wasp, who then unwittingly transfers it to the next flower that she visits:


Successful pollination means the dandelion can produce its plumed seeds, each called a pappus, to create that ethereal thing, the dandelion clock:


A single pappus can be seen top left, detaching itself from the seedhead. The word ‘pappus’ is from the Greek for grandfather, whose white beard the dandelion clock resembles. A pappus can fly for a kilometre, and scientists have worked out how they do it:

The much smaller coltsfoot is being visited here by a flower beetle. Just like the dandelion, the coltsfoot’s curly stigmas will deposit their pollen on the insect, though I must admit his shiny wing cases don’t seem likely to provide a very good attachment site:

coltsfoot? flower beetle?

Below is a link to a really wonderful piece by Brian Johnston with microscopic photos of the dandelion, showing far more than I can manage with my camera.

And I had completely forgotten that my friend Leigh Hayes did a terrific post on dandelions two years ago. Here it is:

And do consider following her blog too.

“Sumer is icumen in”*

Since 1970, English farmland birds have declined by 54%. Since 1976, butterflies have declined by 41%. Overall, 12% of farmland species are at risk of extinction. We need to value and fight for what remains. Look carefully, and you will be rewarded still.

When the hares were being elusive, I dawdled, and enjoyed anything that came my way. Most local farmers set aside strips of uncultivated ground alongside their crops, and together with traditional copses these at least provide small havens for small wondiers.

Two baby Blue Tits (sorry about the focus):

Juvenile blue tits

Wildflowers and their attendant pollinators:


A browsing deer:


An insect licking moisture from a leaf:


A Spotted Orchid:


A Long-tailed Tit:

Long-tailed tit

A Common Blue butterfly with its slender coiled black tongue just visible:

Female Common Blue

And a mystery seedpod, near the stream, fallen from somewhere: does anyone know what it is?

?plantain seeds??

There is still much left to marvel at even in heavily farmed agricultural land in the 21st century, though this 2016 report makes for depressing reading:

Click to access State%20of%20Nature%20UK%20report_%2020%20Sept_tcm9-424984.pdf

*But beauty remains. Eight hundred years ago, an anonymous poet said it all (modern version below!):

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!

Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

And in modern English:

Summer has come in,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow blooms
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!

The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo;
Don’t ever you stop now,

Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

Apparently ‘uerteþ’ (or ‘verteth’) can mean either ‘cavort’ or ‘fart’!

“The man who tells you he has thought of everything has forgotten the hare.”*

In my Cotswold village there is a surfeit of hares right now.  After years of seeing few and photographing none, this weekend they were everywhere. There are five European Brown Hares, Lepus europaeus, in this photo, out of a total of eight that I saw today:


If I wasn’t too close, they watched me warily:


If I played Grandmother’s Footsteps, moving slowly and smoothly when they put their heads down to graze, and freezing when they looked up, I could get close enough to photograph them.


These two did a few seconds of the boxing for which they are famous:


When they run, they cross a large field at up to 70 Kmph, those huge haunches delivering the power of a kangaroo, and the back feet overtaking the front ones:


It may not be obvious, but this one is running fast, straight towards me!


They share the field with variety of birds. This is a Red-legged Partridge, introduced from France for culinary reasons, and now common.

Hare with Red-legged Partridge

After five or six hours of silently stalking them, I came back for one last session, pulled my car over, got out and loudly slammed the door. When I turned round there were two hares by the road maybe 50 yards away, not overly perturbed.


One settled down for a good grooming after the previous night’s rain:


And then a bit of sparring practice:


They were not only eating the wild grasses, but also nibbling the edges of the wheat fields, which the farmers must find infuriating, but they did not seem to go into the centre of the wheat. Apparently they can become a pest, and it is legal to shoot them in certain circumstances, but not in the breeding season. In online farming forums, I found as many messages of appreciation for their beauty as I did complaints about crop damage.

*My title is verse 6 (June) from Anna Crowe’s poem A Calendar of Hares. The full text is here:

A Calendar of Hares



Forbidden fruit*

In Florida I saw this pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) on the top of a dead palm tree.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus

We all know that woodpeckers probe rotting wood to retrieve insects, ants, and juicy larvae, so dead and dying trees are where you expect to see them.

But this one had other ideas:


As you can see, they are in fact quite catholic in their tastes, and often eat seeds and fruits, not just when kindly supplied for them by human bird-feeders.  This one is a male, because the red covers his whole head; females have red napes only. And you can just glimpse the red on his belly that gets him his name.

All over the world, fruiting trees are irresistible to wildlife. This mousebird in Ethiopia is gorging on figs:

Speckled Mousebird

And this bulbul can barely swallow the large yellow berries he has found:

Common Bulbul?

The size of his belly suggests that this Kenyan Blue Monkey has already had more than enough:

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitis

* These greedy, wary, faintly illicit feastings reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s poem:

Forbidden fruit a flavor has

That lawful orchards mocks;

How luscious lies the pea within

The pod that Duty locks!


May I introduce the propagule?

In April I was in Vero Beach, Florida for a bewitching week with friends. It is a barrier island, and the inland waterway is bordered by red mangroves Rhizophora mangle.


Their name comes from their reddish stilt roots; the above-water sections help them breathe.


These extraordinary trees and their roots provide important habitat for all sorts of fish, crustaceans and birds, including this American White Ibis,  Eudocimus albus, who is looking for crabs:


Mangroves live in brackish water, and they have the most unusual reproductive system. They flower, like most plants, producing tiny inconspicuous downward-facing flowers:


But instead of then producing seeds, they produce propagules, (a brand new word for me, sadly with too many letters to be very useful in Scrabble).


These miniature plants stay attached to their mother plant while they grow a longer and thinner root:


Eventually, they drop off into the water below:


Once launched, they bob around vertically and drift with the tides and currents until they stick tip-down in the mud, and become a new tree.

The mangrove edges provide rich pickings for this Little Blue Heron, Egretta caerulea, foraging at low tide:


Alone among herons, the pure white immature is entirely differently colored from this adult.

And in these lagoons there be manatees, which the early mariners thought were mermaids. To my delight we saw them, but not clearly enough to photograph, so this will have to do:



Florida may conjure up images of Disneyworld, but it still has many wild and beautiful places.  More next time.

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