Downland wildlife on the Powell Day walk

By Mary Shotter, Biology Technician

The wooded slopes and rolling hills of the South Downs are a very special landscape and provide a habitat for a wide and interesting variety of species, so Powell Day provided a perfect opportunity to see them at their best in the early spring sunshine.

Not far from the start point in the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, as we climbed gradually along a valley between War and Holt Downs, the browns and greens of the landscape were punctuated by a large patch of bright yellow coltsfoot, one of a few plants with the unusual habit of flowering before any leaves emerge. It is the leaves from which its name derives – when they do eventually unfurl in April they are large and hoof shaped.

Along the track were also patches of Juniper, the berries of which are used for flavouring gin. Once common, it is now a rare sight, due to habitat loss.

The colourful bracket fungus, turkeytails, covered piles of logs besides the chalky tracks. Further along between Buriton and Ditcham, at Coulters Dean, the path turned off the South Downs Way and past a field and grassy bank which was dotted with huge mounds of yellow meadow ant nests. Each one will house between 8,000 and 40,000 ants, feeding their larvae on the roots of Downland plants such as wild thyme. From here the track wound uphill through beech woodland, carpeted with wild garlic, the smell of which became obvious as it was crushed beneath our feet.

On the open grassland of Ditcham Park, skylarks were singing, hovering effortlessly, high above the ground, then parachuting down onto the fields, before ascending again. A lone red admiral butterfly flew past – most red admirals are migratory but a few like this one, will have hibernated and emerged into the early spring warmth in search of nectar. In the more open landscape around Chalton, buzzards and a lone red kite flew overhead, watching as we re-entered the Queen Elizabeth Park and after three hours made our way past yew and pine trees down to the finish.

Brain Day with Dr Guy Sutton

By Lily Brough, 6.2

On Thursday, A Level Psychology and Biology students were joined by Dr Guy Sutton for ‘Brain Day’. It was an inspiring day full of talks, ranging from the effects of drugs on the brain, criminality, brain trauma and the future of the brain. We even got to witness a live dissection of a sheep brain, exploring the different areas of the brain. The day showcased the far-reaching impacts of psychology and neuroscience and its relevance to many unsuspecting aspects of life.

The morning saw a detailed introduction to the structure of the brain, as well as the concepts of neuroplasticity and imaging techniques. This included contemporary studies on the effects of COVID-19 and the Abracadabra project, which studied the long term effects of cognitive stimulation in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. This was followed up by an informative look at the effects of drugs such as cannabis and ketamine on the brain. It was especially interesting to learn of the vastly different effects various forms of cannabis can have – THC causes cognitive impairment, while CBD can be used as a treatment for epilepsy, for example. Just before lunch, we had a look at various neuroimaging techniques. Students particularly enjoyed the vivid images produced by diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), as well as the extremely complex connectomes being created.

After lunch, Dr Sutton explored possible explanations of schizophrenia before giving a powerful talk on the ‘criminal brain’. Looking at different case studies, we were able to explore the complexity of the causes behind crime and the debate of free will. This revealed the philosophical questions that underpin both psychological and neuroscientific research. After this, we had the exciting brain dissection, which gave us a chance to see the structures discussed during the day. Everyone was intrigued by the strange texture of the brain and enjoyed inspecting the hippocampus and cerebellum.

To end the day, there was a talk on the future of the brain, with the discussion of neuro-bionics and the impending fusion of the brain and technology. This sparked much debate about the ethics and morals of advancing research and left us thinking about the future of neuroscience.

By Pip Stamp, Teacher of Psychology

I was extremely proud of our students on Brain Day. To quote Dr Guy Sutton: “I always enjoy visiting Bedales. I was particularly impressed this year, given what has happened over the past 18 months, of how attentive and receptive the students were. They engaged fully, asked some great questions and equally, answered my questions with intelligent and thoughtful responses. Generally, a really delightful, attentive and polite audience and I very much look forward to visiting again.”

Biodiversity update – Moths

By Mary Shotter, Biology Technician

Moths are declining in the UK. Studies have found the overall number of moths has decreased by 28 percent since 1968. The situation is particularly bad in southern Britain, where moth numbers are down by 40 percent. Many individual species have declined dramatically in recent decades and over 60 became extinct in the 20th century.

These alarming decreases in moth populations are not just bad news for the moths themselves, but also have worrying implications for the rest of our wildlife. Moths and their caterpillars are important food items for many other species, including amphibians, small mammals, bats and many bird species.

The reasons for the loss of moths are likely to be many and complex, including changes in the way we manage our gardens, pesticides, herbicides and light pollution. Climate change appears to also be affecting moths.

However at Bedales moths appear to be doing very well. Over the last few months, I have been putting out a ‘light trap’ once a week to attract moths and have so far found just over 100 species, including 4 types of hawkmoth – elephant, pine, poplar and the giant privet hawkmoth which has a 12cm wingspan.

Many of the moth species we have at Bedales are masters of camouflage – such as the Buff tip, which disguises itself as a birch twig and the Flame which has evolved to resemble a broken stick.

My favourite to date has to be the wonderfully named Merveille du Jour which translates roughly as ‘the best thing I’ve seen all day’ –  pictured above (bottom right) merging into lichen on a fence behind the science department.

Many moth caterpillars feed on grasses and it appears that the policy of keeping  areas around the school uncut is reaping rewards for both moths and the many other species that depend on them.

Bedales, biodiversity and lockdown

Biodiversity

By Cheryl Osborne, Teacher of Biology

Lockdown will be one of those defining moments. We will all remember where we were and what we were doing. For me, it will be the transition from standing in front of a class of children in my lab, to sitting staring at a computer screen on my sofa – an alien world and one that I am not enjoying! However, it hasn’t all been bad. The stillness and quiet has let nature be heard and during lockdown both Mary Shotter, our Biology technician, and I have immersed ourselves in it.

Mary has taken a biodiversity study of the Bedales site, and I have been taking photos of the wildflowers during my daily walks in the vicinity of Bedales. From these walks, I have put together some wildflower quizzes that have been available on the B-More Teams channel. I have really learnt a lot doing this and seen flowers that I hadn’t noticed before. My husband and I have been lucky, living close to school and the Ashford Hangers. The unnerving quiet of a deserted A3, which we walked over daily in those early days, allowed the birds and the rustling of the trees to be heard and heightened our awareness of nature all around.

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Block 3 explore ecosystems for Ecology project

Ecology 1

By Cheryl Osborne, Teacher of Biology

In the five weeks before half term, Block 3 students were engaged in a project for Biology, researching an ecosystem. They chose their own ecosystems, which ranged from rainforests to cold deserts, coral reefs to wetlands. They were asked to identify three habitats within their ecosystem, to look at the biotic and abiotic factors affecting each habitat, and then finally to look at the adaptations of three organisms within each habitat.

The project enabled students to be independent in their learning and to be creative. They learnt research skills and the need to reference the websites that they used. Those who looked at the marking criteria carefully performed really well. The projects were presented as PowerPoints, word documents, posters and even a website (which can be accessed here).

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6.1 biologists hear from leading scientists

Venki-Ramakrishnan

By Mary Shotter, Biology Technician

Biologists in 6.1 travelled to the Apollo Theatre in London to hear a series of lectures by some of the country’s leading scientists as part of A Level Biology Live.

First was 2009 Nobel Prize winner and President of the Royal Society, Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan (pictured above), whose many scientific contributions include his work on the atomic structure of ribosomes. Ribosomes exist in their millions in every cell, and are the site where genetic information is read to synthesise proteins from amino acids. He began work on ribosomes in the late 1970s and eventually discovered their complex three-dimensional structure in 2000, with the aid of X-ray crystallography.

Next, Professor Robert Winston – who was the Bedales Eckersley Lecture speaker in 2013 – spoke about manipulating human reproduction, from his work in vitro fertilisation, through to regenerative medicine such as stem cell research and epigenetics, which may turn out to be the most important biological development in the years to come. However, he warned that manipulating the human will always be dangerous, uncertain and unpredictable.

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