Polly Want A City? Population Boom Sparks Call For Cull Of London’s Invasive Parakeets

When someone imagines London, they probably visualise Big Ben, Buckingham palace, and an overly patriotic use of the Union Jack. What they probably don’t picture is flocks of bright green parrots occupying every tree branch and streetlamp in view. However, urban populations of invasive parrot species are becoming more readily observed globally, and in London, there are fears the population may be growing too fast!

Earlier this year, the UK saw headlines announcing that the government has been advised to cull the iconic birds following a recent increase in numbers. But with their bright colours making them a unique addition to the fauna of the city, and their nonchalant nature towards locals and tourists, many are opposed to the cull. So what is the right thing to do when we get attached to an invasive species? And are parrots on their way to becoming the next globally distributed ‘pest’?

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Not All Datasets Are Created Equal

Image Credit: Chinmaysk, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image Cropped

Species data for understanding biodiversity dynamics: The what, where and when of species occurrence data collection (2021) Petersen et al., Ecological Solutions and Evidence, https://doi.org/10.1002/2688-8319.12048

The Crux

With the rise of the internet, GPS’ and smartphones, the amount of openly available species occurrence data has reached previously unfathomable numbers. This increase is mostly due to the engagement of the citizen scientist – regular people getting out there in nature and taking part in data collection and research. From people taking photos of flowers in their backyard to organised salamander spotting safaris, citizen scientists have opened up data that previously would have cost massive amounts to produce.

The Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) is the largest hub of such data, collating data ranging from amateur observation to museum specimens to professional surveys. It is well-known, however, that this kind of openly available data comes with a myriad of caveats: some species groups are reported much more than others (I am looking at you, bird-watchers), and “roadside bias” (see Did You Know?) haunts the records. But how are the records distributed among different land-cover types on a country-scale, does it differ between groups of conservation concern, and does it depend on who the reporters are?

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“Those Things Are Evil”: Prediction Intervals in Mixed Models

Suppose we study salamanders and want to predict body mass based on their body length. We also want to account for different access to food and differing levels of competition at each site we’ve collected our salamanders from. So we fit a linear model with a random effect for site as we only have samples from a subset of sites. (Want a refresher on random effects? We’ve got you covered.)

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From Deforestation to the Pandemic: How Destroying Ecosystems Increases Novel Infectious Diseases

This is a guest post by Professor Emma Despland

Zoonotic diseases, or diseases that jump from animals to people, are not a new phenomenon.  Many well-known human diseases first originated in animal populations. In some cases, animals are the main sources of human infection and human-to-human transmission is rare or null (e.g. rabies); other diseases persist in animal populations and occasionally jump to humans, seeding a human outbreak (e.g. plague), and yet others jumped from animals to people long ago and have been circulating in human populations ever since (e.g. measles).  However, novel zoonotics have been appearing with disturbingly increasing frequency.  

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Predators Under Nightlights

This is a guest post by Dr. Mark Ditmer.

Streetlights like these have meant that for some animals, hiding in the dark is now increasingly difficult (Image Credit: ME Stoner, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Artificial nightlight alters the predator–prey dynamics of an apex carnivore (2020) Ditmer et al., Ecography, https://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.05251

The Crux

The earth is no longer dark at night – artificial lighting has degraded the dark nighttime conditions that many species have evolved with throughout their evolutionary history. This change is only accelerating, with human expansion and intensity of radiance continuing to increase annually. We already know that elevated light levels can disrupt ecological processes like pollination or migration, as well as have a litany of negative effects on individual species, from physiological stress to predation risk. But it’s hard to get an idea of how the increase in ‘light pollution’ affects free-roaming wildlife, especially large mammals, and especially at scales relevant for making conservation policy.

In areas like the American west, the rapid growth of urban areas and the accompanying spread of light pollution create a rapidly changing ecosystem, one that sees many conflicts between humans and wildlife. One particularly species of particular interest is the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), which seeks out sources of forage on the edges of and within towns and cities (e.g. parks, farms), especially in arid regions. The primary predator of mule deer – the cougar (Puma concolor) – also navigates and hunts near human development where their prey congregate, but tend to avoid human presence more so than deer.

Today’s authors wanted to assess how artificial lighting, both where it occurs and its intensity, can shape the behaviors and predator-prey interactions of these species across the American West ranging from the edges of bright urban regions, such as Salt Lake City (Utah) and Reno (Nevada), to areas receiving minimal light pollution like Grand Canyon National Park.

What They Did

The authors used a massive dataset that included GPS-locations from 263 mule deer, 56 cougars, and 1,562 locations where cougars successfully killed mule deer. The resulting location data were combined with estimates of anthropogenic light pollution (more on this in Did You Know?).

Several different analyses were performed on the combined light and GPS-location data, along with other variables representing environmental (e.g., snow cover, land cover, terrain) and human factors (e.g., distance to roads, housing density). The aim was to figure out whether A) light has any influence on the behavior of each species, B) cougars avoid areas with high light pollution, allowing deer to forage freely wherever and whenever they want (the ‘predator shield hypothesis’), or C) cougars exploit the higher densities of deer seeking forage around areas with elevated light pollution (e.g., parks, golf courses, agriculture; the ‘ecological trap hypothesis’).

Did You Know: A Space Agency’s Ecological Impact

In this study we used remote sensing data to determine the amount of light pollution in a given environment. Yet the sensors only pick up the total amount of light, and can’t tell us what is a product of our activity and what is a natural source of light. To separate the two, we used light data which was recently developed by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). This dataset removes the contributions of natural sources of light (e.g., moonlight, fire, atmospheric spray) from our data and results in values of just the human-created nighttime light emissions.

What They Found

The behaviors of both species changed greatly with levels of light pollution, as did the predation risk for deer. The behaviour changed across different scales as well. Cougars killed deer in study sites with the high amounts of light pollution, but within those sites (e.g., edge of Salt Lake City, Utah) cougars selected to hunt and kill in the relatively darkest locations. In contrast, in the darker study areas, cougars killed deer in areas with the relatively more light pollution than the surrounding area. However, even though cougars killed deer in the darkest spots within the bright urban interface, those locations generally had much higher levels of light pollution than the brightest kill sites in the low light pollution study areas.

The study found that cougars made kills in bright regions, but generally only within the darker parts of those regions (Image Credit: ME Stoner, CC BY 2.0)

Deer living in brighter urban areas tended to forage at night, potentially to avoid direct human interactions. This shift might have benefited deer by avoiding humans, but as they sought out more natural and dark locations in these areas, cougars would wait in ambush.

In the end, the authors concluded that their findings fell in a gray zone between the predator shield and ecological trap hypotheses dependent on scale. Areas with high levels of light and subsequent human activities provide excellent foraging opportunities for ungulates (as this study measured as well), but adaptable predators can follow and take advantage – at least in environments that they feel are safe enough.

Problems

This is an observational study, so it’s hard to fully tease apart what effects are driven by light and what are driven by other human factors. We did our best to account for the other more traditional sources of the human footprint, reporting effect sizes for each, but there’s always a chance we’re attributing some effects to light pollution that could be caused by some other aspect of our presence.

So What?

Work like this shines a light on (pun intended) how different species will respond to the ongoing urbanization trends humans are driving in much of the planet.

Although many wildlife ecology studies consider various human alterations to habitats and the consequent changes in animal behavior, most studies fail to consider the sensory environment and the pollutants (e.g., noise, light) that can impact wildlife populations in their analyses. How wildlife use an ecosystem can impact everything from human-wildlife interactions to pulses of nutrients to the soil based on shifting areas of kill sites/carcasses.

Dr. Mark Ditmer is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Human-Carnivore Co-Existence and Wittemyer Lab at Colorado State University. You can read more about him at his profile here or follow him on Twitter @MDitmer.

A Short Review of Sexuality in the Natural World

The discovery of ‘lesbian’ seagulls in California in the 1970s shook outdated beliefs that homosexuality was unnatural. Since then, scientists have documented cases of homosexuality in hundreds more species (Image Credit: JanBirdie, Pixabay licence)

Darwin’s work on evolution, natural selection and “survival of the fittest” is probably the most well-known scientific hypothesis out there.

Survival of the fittest means that the “fittest” have the highest reproductive success – whether that is achieved by roaring the loudest, building the most beautiful nest, camouflaging the best, or performing the most impressive mating dance. Passing on their genes to the next generation is what makes an individual successful in this context.

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Ecological Fortification

When we think of wolves, and more specifically what they like to eat, the first thing that comes to mind is often the image of a pack tirelessly hunting down large ungulates. It’s a high octane, endurance race to the death – one which also involves some tag teaming.

Well it turns out these endurance specialists are able to trade in their usual cursorial (fancy word for running your prey down) approach to hunting for a more ambush (less fancy word for sitting very still and jumping out on something) style depending on their choice of prey. Researchers found that when wolves turned their eyes to other prey types such as beavers, they adopted a sit-and-wait tactic more commonly seen in cats. They were often even observed waiting downwind so as to avoid the beavers keen sense of smell.

It’s cool to know that we are still learning new things about these charismatic and well studied animals – in this case their ability to ‘activate’ ambush mode should the need arrive.

Tanya Strydom is a PhD student at the Université de Montréal, mostly focusing on how we can use machine learning and artificial intelligence in ecology. Current research interests include (but are not limited to) predicting ecological networks, the role species traits and scale in ecological networks, general computer (and maths) geekiness, and a (seemingly) ever growing list of side projects. Tweets (sometimes related to actual science) can be found @TanyaS_08.

Predator Poop Propagating Plant Persistence

Image Credit: Rene Rauschenberger, Pixabay licence, Image Cropped

An omnivorous mesopredator modifies predation of omnivore-dispersed seeds (2021) Bartel & Orrock, Ecosphere, https://doi.org/10.1002/ecs2.3369.

The Crux

The evolution of different methods of seed dispersal has played a huge role in shaping plant diversity and distribution. Earlier plants could only use the water or wind to disperse their offspring, but eventually plants evolved the ability to harness the movement of animals, letting their seeds disperse often further and more efficiently than before.

Seeds are also a vital form of food for many species, including small rodents and insects. Larger animals too, including wild boars, bears, and coyotes who will get stuck into berries when there’s plenty around. This leads to them leaving berry seeds mixed in with their faeces. We might be deterred by the idea of picking dinner out of another animals poop, but many of those rodents and insects don’t mind.

But what about when those faeces are from one of your predators? Do you still want that seed, or should you get the hell out of an area clearly inhabited by a threat to your livelihood? The answers to these questions can determine which seeds get left where, which in turn can determine where plants end up taking root and spreading to. That’s the focus of today’s study.

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A Story About Mortality: The Evolution of Aging and Death

A flatworm (Pseudocerus liparus) crawling on a sponge – passing through a forest of hydroids and tunicates. (Image credit: Christa Rohrbach, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Last week I posted an article about fascinating creatures that escape death almost completely, including the famous “immortal jellyfish” (link below). Yet while the jellyfish’s attitude to aging is awe-inspiring, its existence poses a more obvious, yet perplexing question: why do we age?

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