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Have you ever wondered what it is like to work on one of the rarest Woodlice

Amy-Jayne Dutton, from Stoke-on-Trent, has recently uprooted from her home comforts to move to the remote island of St Helena, a UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic... to take a rather unusual step in her career! She has taken up the role as Spiky Yellow Woodlouse Project Manager with the St Helena National Trust. Here Amy enlightens us with her adventures so far, and informs us of the challenges facing the future of the unique spiky yellow woodlouse, locally known as ‘Spiky’, on the magical island of St Helena: 

 

On her way to survey ‘Spikies’, Amy in the forests of St Helena

 

The Spiky Yellow Woodlouse project, funded by the Darwin Plus Initiative, is partnership-based and aims to secure the future of this Critically Endangered species. With support from RSPB and Buglife, the project took a great step forward in 2016, with the establishment of a Conservation Strategy, overviewed by the IUCN Invertebrate Conservation group. A review of Spiky and the Strategy (2016-2021) is now available online, through this link: https://portals.iucn.org/library/node/46258.  

 

Through delivering the Strategy, the Trust and its’ partners aim to protect the important and unique cloud forests of St Helena, so that Spiky will have a home for the future. To find out more about the amazing wildlife of St Helena and what we are doing to help save it, please contact Assistant International Officer, Sarah Havery sarah.havery@rspb.org.uk.

 

Not a lot of people have heard of a small isopod crustacean called the Spiky Yellow Woodlouse (Pseudolaureola atlantica), completely unique to the small island of St Helena in the South Atlantic. I am lucky enough to not only have been introduced to this amazing island and its fantastic ecology, but I have actually been given the chance to work with this Critically Endangered species! 

 

The Critically Endangered Spiky yellow woodlouse is one of the rarest woodlice in the world

 

Back in March I was looking for a challenge, something special, and here I am. I have been on St Helena for four months now, in that time I have become acquainted with the island and its species, particularly the cloud forest of the Peaks where I spend a lot of my time. I have to say, the black cabbage tree (Melanodendron integrifolium) already has a special place in my heart. Who couldn’t love a daisy tree? This habitat is vital to the island, as the vegetation intercepts the mist often present on the Peaks, providing a key water resource for the whole island. 

 

The cloud forests of St Helena are an invertebrate hotspot supporting many unique species

 

The diversity of invertebrates here is incredible; with over 400 species of invertebrate only found on this little island, and nowhere else in the World. This includes species such as the golden sail spider, blushing snail, and of course, the spiky yellow woodlouse. Even the Galapagos Islands do not support this scale of invertebrate diversity! Invertebrates are key to essential ecosystem functions including pollination and decomposition, and while they may not all be very pretty, they are pretty important. The Spiky is a good flagship for the less appealing species, as well as its cloud forest home.    

 

The spiky yellow woodlouse is a flagship of St Helena’s cloud forests

 

I was lucky enough to travel down to my new role on the last sailing of the RMS St Helena from the UK, a special experience as now Royal Mail Ships are part of a by-gone era. Taking 14 days, this gave me plenty of time to find out all about what I was letting myself in for, and to make some great friends, invaluable in my first few weeks of getting to know my way around and settling in. Although I miss my friends and family back in the UK, this was such a great opportunity for my career, and to help make a difference to the amazing species of St Helena. And I have to say; no-one was very surprised when I told them I was off on an adventure halfway across the world! Although when my friend sent a parcel to me and found it might take up to three months to reach me, she did comment that it was like I was living in the Bermuda triangle.

 

Life on St Helena is good, providing you aren’t too dependent on access to 24 hour supermarkets, choose food depending on what is available rather than what you fancy, and don’t crave access to giant shopping malls or cinemas. I seem to have a more hectic social life here than at home; most weekends there is something going on, and there are plenty of people happy to feed and look after me!

 

I currently live in the St Helena National Trust’s tourist accommodation; it is interesting having tourists around and seeing how they find the island. The first question most people ask me is invariably ‘what are you doing here’, generally resulting in interest but also slight bemusement that someone is here clambering around the cloud forest on the Peaks (carefully of course) in search of a little woodlouse. The photos usually do a better job of explaining why this species is so cool, and in need and deserving of specific attention, and sales of Spiky souvenirs in the Trust shop are selling well! 

 

Amy in the field surveying Spikies, so we can better understand this unique species

 

The Spiky Yellow Woodlouse project, which I now manage, focuses on both the conservation of the spiky yellow woodlouse, and the restoration of an area of black cabbage tree woodland, key cloud forest habitat, which is certainly keeping me busy! I am not only spending time in the field surveying and observing Spikies, but also working with the government nursery looking at plant propagation for the restoration area and make sure that over this final year of the Darwin-funded project we establish good foundations for work in the longer term.

 

The challenge is to find Spikies, observe them and get useful habitat and population data, but not to damage the sensitive environment that they are in, or cause more harm to the populations than just leaving them be. There are few resources from similar situations to work off as this is no ordinary woodlouse! The Spiky lives above ground in the ferns and trees rather than in detritus like other woodlice, we’re not even sure what it eats. So in many ways, any information gathered during this project is new knowledge, expanding our understanding of this iconic invertebrate. I’m aiming to understand their habitat and to answer some of the unknowns about the species.

 

Spot the Spiky! One of the challenges of surveying this rare species is being able to spot them underneath the fern fronds

 

My legs have certainly got fitter from the walking up and down the Peaks in my search for Spikies! The terrain getting to them is challenging, but the exercise is worth it – it took a few weeks for my legs to get used to hiking up and down steep to very steep slopes!

Just getting ‘your eye in’ to be able to see these small isopod crustaceans in the first place takes practice, and it helps if someone is there very patiently pointing them out! Lourens Malan of the St Helena Governments Environmental Management Division has found Spikies in a number of locations across the Peaks during his work on cloud forest trees, another Darwin funded project, and has helped me to access and spot them at these sites. It’s amazing how something so bright yellow blends in to green! I have sat looking at one Spiky on a fern frond, and later spotted another individual only a couple of centimetres away from the one I was observing! 

 

Amy surveying for Spikies amongst the fern fronds on St Helena

 

But with a fair bit of practice and help I am getting there. I am already lucky enough to have seen more Spikies than almost everyone else in the world, a true honour. Hopefully this project is a step towards greater recognition of this wonderful species, increasing understanding of its ecology and habitat, and protecting and enhancing populations for the future. 

 

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