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KEITH BROOMFIELD: Easy to overlook, pond skaters are actually intriguing creatures

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It was a wonderful day to hike across this patchwork moorland south of Kirkmichael, the rolling folds bejewelled with silver-shimmered lochans.

I stopped by a small hill pool fringed with rushes and vibrant green sphagnum, and sat for a while to eat lunch, while at the same time examining its peaty waters in the hope of spotting a palmate newt. No newts materialised, but there was other life around, including a couple of pond skaters that glided across the pool’s sheen, their legs mysteriously supported by the water film.

I watched them intently and my mind began to reflect. Pond skaters are easy to overlook, for they are familiar insects that ‘skate’ upon the water’s surface and at first glance do not do much else. But that is a misconception, for pond skaters are in reality most intriguing creatures.

To throw one unusual fact into the mix – pond skaters have buoyant water-repellent hairs on their legs and feet, enabling them to walk on the surface of the water. The surface sheen is their version of a spider’s web, and they hunt by detecting the vibrations of other tiny creatures on this film.

I always enjoy scrutinising a small area of ground or water closely, because the more you look, the more you see. So, I continued my observations. Soon, I spotted a lone mayfly bobbing up and down in the air just above the pool. When suspended upon their delicate gossamer wings, mayflies exhibit incredible grace and elegance. However, for mayflies, it is very much a case of ‘beauty and the beast’ because their underwater larval nymphs look decidedly ugly. Indeed, if you or I were shrunk down to their size, they would resemble fierce aliens that would strike dreadful fear into one’s heart.

However, unlike the nymphs of some other water insects, which are carnivorous, those of most mayfly species are benign and graze upon underwater algae and detritus. These larvae can live underwater for up to two years before developing into adult flies, which are then on the wing for only a short time before succumbing after the rigours of mating.

I finished my sandwich and rose to my feet to wander further over this marvellous Perthshire landscape. I adore this area and over the years have spotted nine different types of bird of prey flying over its expanses and watched woodcock in nearby woodlands engage in their mysterious courtship flights at dusk.

Later in the afternoon, a large frog caught my attention in amongst the heather. I hunkered down to take a photograph, but before I could do so, it disappeared with one almighty leap. I parted the heather to try and find it, but there was no sign of the creature. I looked up across the moor once more and wondered how many other frogs were lurking within its protective embrace.

INFO
Pond skaters are efficient predators, grabbing small insects with their front legs, and then using their mouthparts to pierce the prey’s body and devour it. There are several different pond skater species in the UK.

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