Remember Attenborough’s soothing voice on a Sunday night? For many watching nature on TV at an early age kick-started a passion for wildlife and future careers in the fields of conservation and biology. In June’s Conservation Conversation we discussed nature documentaries and science: what we think is good about them now in terms of science communication, and where we think they could go in the future to contribute more. Nature documentaries and their presenters have a huge following; tapping into that following would be invaluable for communicating science to a broad spectrum of people. Read More
We all know that access to sufficient clean water is vital for sustaining life. For us humans, the ideal scenario is that everyone can go to a tap in their house, turn it on, and an endless supply of clean water pours out. But currently more than 700 million people worldwide do not have ready access to an improved water source, and instead rely on other water sources including lakes, streams, and unprotected hand dug wells. While access to piped water is on the highest rung of the “water ladder”, these other sources are of more variable quality. I’ve recently been working on a project which looks at the role that shallow hand dug wells play in water supply in urban settlements in western Kenya.
Whether you’re delighted or horrified by the UK general election result, the new government represents the collective will of everyone who put a cross on a piece of paper on May 7th. Apart from voting at elections and sending the odd campaign letter to my local MP I do little to involve myself with how government makes decisions. In fact I didn’t know there was much more I could do. Turns out, the government wants to know what we think, they even take time to ask us through policy consultations. Read More
I’m sitting down to write this shortly after the UK General Election result, which has surprised many. Your surprise may be positive or negative but if you’re Nick Clegg you may well be pondering if your five years of cooperation with David Cameron’s Conservatives turned out so well after all. I don’t think the electorate thought so.
Come and join us during the next 2 days for an exciting programme of PhD student talks and invited speakers from the Universities of Durham, Glasgow, Newcastle, St Andrews and Stirling, together with the British Geological Survey and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology,
IAPETUS Doctoral Training Partnership Conference & Workshop
Stirling Court Hotel
20th to 21st April 2015
Download the IAPETUS conference programme
I am interested in understanding the role that parasites play in biological invasions using the harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) as a model invasive species in the UK. While sampling in London last Autumn, I discovered dramatic increase in the number of harlequin ladybirds that had the sexually (and sometimes socially) transmitted parasitic fungus Hesperomyces virescens (unfortunately no common name…). This led me to wonder how far has this fungus spread in the UK and what species can you find it on. To try and find this out we developed a public survey, encouraging the recording of large overwintering groups of ladybirds, especially those in the South East of England where I found the fungus in the field. For more information about the fungus, click here.
By Zarah Pattison
I was outraged by a BBC news presenter who quite candidly announced on National television, “Can we really live alongside these animals?”
The presenter was referring to the Devonshire beavers who have taken up residence along the River Otter. These beavers had arrived unannounced and seemingly flourished in their new home. It is not certain how long they have been occupying the area, between 3-5 years has been estimated. What if it was longer? The fate of humans has not been doomed during that time. I have not seen any evidence of the struggle between human and beaver played out, such as that of a threat to our societal rights. Read More
At the last count there were 1,240 known bat species around the world, 18 British species, and even nine Scottish bat species so the odds that I would get to study a wide diversity of bats during my five year PhD were high. However what I naively failed to account for was the extreme pressures that the built environment places upon wildlife.
In 2011 we spent an enjoyable summer surveying urban woodlands throughout Central Scotland in an attempt to determine how the vegetation characteristics (e.g. tree species richness), woodland size and shape, and the surrounding landscape influence the distribution of Scottish bat species. On our first night of surveying, equipped with a detailed guide outlining the key features required to distinguish between species, I nervously approached on of our mist nets bearing the distinctive outline of a bat. Extracting it from the net, the size and its small dog-like face with its flat broad head, made it easily identifiable as one of the pipistrelle species. Although a rather stark invasion of its privacy, its orange penis identified it as a male (!) and a soprano pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus). The following nine bats that we caught that night (7 soprano pipistrelles and 2 common pipistrelles) hinted that a pattern was emerging.
It wasn’t until the end of August, after 27 long and tiring nights of surveying which included chasing after youths who had stolen our equipment, arriving at woodland only to find it had been deforested and frequent visits from the police that we finally caught a non-pipistrelle bat. Again, my identification skills weren’t required given that its ears were nearly as long as its body; it was a brown long-eared bat (Plecotus auritus). We gleefully sent photos of us holding the bat to Rebekah Mayhew, my long suffering field assistant who had been there every morning emptying the invertebrate traps, every wet afternoon identifying tree species, and every night bat surveying with the exception of this one night… By our last survey of the season in early September (fittingly having caught a further 16 bats that night – all pipistrelles), it soon became apparent that whilst we were lacking species diversity we had a really interesting large dataset which we could use to investigate the behaviour of our commonest species.
As we were trapping bats (alongside using a bat detector to record their echolocation calls) it was possible to identify the sex, age (adult or juvenile), and reproductive state of the females. This gave us the opportunity to examine how the different demographics of a population respond to urbanisation. As we inspected the data what was most striking was that we were only catching females in particular woodlands whereas males appeared to be widespread. After the normal head scratching, numerous cups of tea, and despair that is run of the mill when dealing with complex statistics we were able to confirm our suspicions. We found that females favour high quality woodland which is well connected to other woodland patches. Males, on the other hand, seem to be less particular and are just as likely to be found in poorer-quality woodland patches surrounded by built-up areas.
The findings, published in the Royal Society journal Open Science (http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/1/3/140200) suggest that the demands of pregnancy and raising offspring are driving females to select woodlands which provide good feeding opportunities and a safe route to fly between feeding grounds and roosting sites. As breeding females are of key importance in ensuring the survival of future generations of bat populations within the city environment, it is therefore important that we manage our urban green space for their benefit. The adaptability of many bat species to urban areas is frequently assessed by recording their echolocation calls which gives you a good indication of which habitats bats are frequently using or avoiding, however it fails to provide any information on sex differences in habitat use. By using bat call data it may therefore be relatively easy to mistake species presence across the city as adaptability (and therefore assume that a species requires less conservation effort) without first considering if there are differences in where males or females are foraging.
As I near the end of my PhD, although I haven’t studied an array of species or devised any solutions to save those species which are critically endangered, by focusing on our commoner species I have gained a greater understanding of how the pressures of urban living are shaping their behaviour and distributions. Whilst pipistrelles are relatively common throughout Britain, these are the species that people will encounter whilst on bat walks or watch flying around their back gardens and therefore have a fundamental role to play in engaging the public with science and conservation. Monitoring and conserving our commonest species will therefore not only give an indication of how our rarer (and so harder to survey) species may be responding to the urban landscape but also ensure that future generations are able to appreciate the wonder of watching bats forage at dusk from their own doorstep.
My PhD fieldwork days have come to an end and on reflection I can now appreciate how much was achieved, both good and challenging, in such a short time frame. So much happens during a field season but only the successes make it into scientific literature. For me, the gritty details and mistakes that get left behind make field work experience so much more memorable and allow you to improve for the future. I often read stories of perfect, idyllic fieldwork settings and experiments, which is fantastic, but conversely I would also encourage people to share not only the reality of setting up a field experiment, but also their fieldwork ‘bloopers’. Although urban rivers may not seem exotic, I can definitely say that I never expected them to be so entertaining. These are just a few of my PhD fieldwork blips.
Big data is something we hear more and more of, and is something I think we should all be paying attention to. The recent explosion in computing power has enabled the production of more, better and higher resolution data in various fields, and it is opening up a lot of opportunities for ecologists, along with posing a whole new set of problems. But this should not mean we shy away from it, far from it – these tools could allow us to make better, more accurate and cheaper predictions across all different fields of ecology (and other fields besides).
I have recently returned from ForestSat 2014, a conference aimed at showcasing, developing and exploring the potential of remote sensing for forest ecology. It also didn’t hurt that the conference was in Riva del Garda in Italy. We all know that if there is one thing the Italians excel at it, it is food and wine. I have never had such delicious food at a conference – and incredibly tasty wine at lunch, let alone the poster sessions. It was an absolute treat. But the wine wasn’t the only reason I was there, the main reason was that remote sensing is opening up new fields for ecologists, but still seems relatively underexplored as a useful tool. While two sessions did concentrate on how remote sensing is used for biodiversity monitoring and wildlife studies, what was clear is that currently there is a gap between the level of precision and detail this is being used for in biomass estimates and structure, and how this is being applied with ecological questions. This is a great opportunity for ecologists and remote sensors alike. Costs in terms of time and money can be greatly reduced compared to a total reliance on field data, and higher precision data can be produced. But of course for this to be effective there needs to be collaboration between the remote sensing experts who understand the intricate details of processing and understanding this data, and ecologists who can use this processing power to be able to frame these questions with ecological context and relate to field results. Often this data has not been originally collected for a primarily ecological use and there are compromises which need to be made as a result.
But this is changing. Soon the launch of the GEDI satellite (a satellite where the starting remit is collecting data for biodiversity use using LIDAR) will open up a whole new and exciting range of options; along with other missions such as NISAR (a collaboration between NASA and ISOR, the Indian Space Agency). And with open data options increasingly being considered it seems there is no better time to start exploring this exciting technology.
Advances in next generation sequencing are also happening apace. Genetic studies are becoming cheaper and more accessible, while approachable protocols are being developed and shared which mean it is accessible for people less experienced with molecular techniques, rather than just a few. This generates huge amounts of potentially incredibly useful data but the skills to actually manage this data are vital. Again cross discipline cooperation will be crucial, and a change in perspective on data ownership will likely have to follow on behind.
Increasingly projects are focusing on both regional / local and global scales. One such project is the PREDICTS database, which I was lucky enough to work on in my Masters. Recent publications in high impact journals such as Proceedings of the Royal Society B and upcoming in Ecology and Evolution demonstrate the interest in and impact of these ambitious and far reaching projects, and what has been achieved is truly remarkable. But this would not be possible without a change in attitude towards data sharing, and the precise and detailed database that has been developed would not exist without researchers donating their raw data. This is an important shift in my opinion, after all should we consider that scientific data, especially that collected for biodiversity conservation and research is solely ours? Or should there be a more open commitment that once you have published off that data, it is time to open it to the wider scientific community?
The most enjoyable and impressive part of ForestSat for me was the global representation. Nearly every continent had at least one representative, and the sense of a global community was strong. It is clearly exciting times for big data. Time for us ecologists to take full advantage.