Are Wind Farms A Threat To The Planet’s Birdlife?

Image Credit: Sumeet Moghe, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped

This article was originally posted on the Ducky blog. You can read more of my work there, including this piece on the positive effect that reducing your carbon footprint can have on the world’s biodiversity.

While there seems to be a neverending deluge of pessimism surrounding the climate change debate these days, there is plenty of cause for optimism as well. One of the biggest examples is how quickly renewable energy is growing as a power source in a vast number of countries. The International Energy Agency last year reported that by the end of 2021, renewable energy will account for almost 30% of global electricity output. In most countries, renewable energy is now cheaper than energy generated by fossil fuels.

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The Key Component

Host availability drives the spatiotemporal dynamics of interaction metapopulations across a fragmented landscape (2020) Opedal et al. 2020, Ecology. https://doi.org/10.1002/ecy.3186

Image Credit: Ferran Turmo Gort, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, Image Cropped

The Crux

Ecology is all about understanding how biotic and abiotic factors interact within environments. Biotic factors are those that involve living organisms such as prey availability/resource abundance (i.e., the availability of food and resources?), competitor density, or predator density. Abiotic factors, however, are those that involve non-living aspects of the environment, such as rainfall or temperature. Studying how these various factors interact with one another allows researchers to better understand how and why ecological dynamics vary across a changing landscape.

One really cool thing about ecological dynamics is that they can play out across trophic levels, meaning something happening at the level of the resource (such as grass) can then result in changes at a higher trophic level, such as that of the consumer (deer) or predator (wolf). While there has been an enormous amount of work dedicated to understanding how these species interactions affect the species involved, much less is known about how these dynamics play out across a natural landscape. Today’s authors used a well-known model system (see Did You Know?) to study just that.

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T-Party

Although I’m big enough of a person to admit that in Jurassic Park (1993) the scene with Dr Malcom or the whole ‘they DO move in herds‘ moment are probably way more iconic. Yet I’m still going to have to give a shout out to the T-rex dramatically roaring as the tattered “when dinosaurs ruled the earth” comes falling down behind her as one of the best moments of the film. And any other moment featuring the T-Rex throughout the film series if I’m being honest – the ending of Jurassic World (2015) anyone???

Jurassic Park (for its time) was surprisingly accurate based on our knowledge of dinos at that time – such as not being afraid to challenge the idea of some dinosaurs actually being birds. However, new knowledge has come to light that the solitary (and fearsome) T-Rex that they portrayed may actually have hunted as in packs – much like her co-stars the velociraptors or modern day wolves – and a big part of me hopes the directors would’ve at least considered a T-Rex pack…

AN ECOLOGIST’S RETROSPECTIVE ON JURASSIC PARK

A recent discovery of similarly aged Tyrannosaurus fossils at a dig site in Utah adds to an emerging pattern of mass burial sites of Tyrannosaurus and could be reflective of a much more social and gregarious species than what typically comes to mind when we thing of these once mighty beasts. One T-Rex must have been a terrifying encounter – let alone a whole pack of them!

The full article can de found here: https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.11013

I feel it is important to mention that I wrote this while sharing my desk with a (gorgeous) LEGO model of the T-rex from Jurassic Park – she approves of this article and demands that I get her some friends… Oh and that it is very important to mention that recent research shows that T-Rex do in fact have feathers but the artistic rendering skills need some time to get with the times – next time though!

Can Wind Farms Slow the Growth of Shorebird Populations?

Vulnerability of northern gannets to offshore wind farms; seasonal and sex-specific collision risk and demographic consequences (2020) Lane et al., Marine Environmental Research, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marenvres.2020.105196

The Crux

A green on green conflict is what occurs when forms of renewable energy can have a potentially negative effect on the local environment. We see it in hydropower disrupting freshwater fish populations, or in the case of today’s paper, wind farms causing bird deaths. Marine shorebirds are often killed by wind turbines, yet it’s not totally clear to what extent population numbers are impacted by these deaths.

Additionally, whether wind farms are more dangerous to male or female, old or young birds could have a big impact on whether these bird deaths affect population numbers in the future. Today’s authors wanted to investigate this question, using a population of northern gannets off the coast of Scotland.

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What To Do About “Overkill Conservation”

This is your friendly reminder that dinosaurs are not going to be coming back anytime soon, but the imaginative science behind this idea is currently bringing back some other near-extinct species. Yes! In case you missed it, 2020 saw the birth of the first cloned black-footed ferret. This marked the first successful attempt to clone species in the brink of extinction using frozen cell lines, and consequently, our expectation around species conservation in the coming years.

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The More the Merrier

Viral zoonotic risk is homogenous among taxonomic orders of mammalian and avian reservoir hosts (2020) Mollentze & Streicker, PNAS. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1919176117

Image Credit: Tom Spinker, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Crux

Diseases that jump from other animals to humans, or zoonotic diseases (see Did You Know?) have become something that all of us are now very familiar with. COVID-19 is one such disease, and the impact it has had on the world as a whole is all the evidence that anyone could ever need for understanding why it is important to know where these diseases come from. Classically, specific groups of animals have been thought to act as reservoirs for the viruses that cause these diseases. Take rabies, for example. This is the disease that results in rabid animals, but you may not know that bats act as a reservoir for rabies, meaning that the rabies virus survives within bat populations and can be spread by them.

This is known as the “special reservoir hypothesis”, and it posits that there are certain traits associated with these reservoir species and/or their ecology that make them more likely to act as reservoirs for these viruses. In contrast, it could be that all animal species are equally likely to act as a reservoir for zoonotic viruses, and the risk of virus transmission is instead due to how many host species are within a given group of animal hosts. All this means is that you expect to find more diverse groups of animals hosting a more diverse group of viruses. This is known as the “reservoir richness hypothesis”.

In order to better manage zoonotic disease emergence and even predict where it is likely to occur in the future, it is important to understand if there are indeed special reservoirs among animal hosts, or if disease emergence is instead a consequence of host species richness. Today’s authors utilized data on zoonotic viruses and host species to understand this relationship.

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The How, Why, and When of Transforming Data

We’ve been out in the field, painstakingly collecting each butterfly and measuring its body length and wingspan. Now is the moment of truth. We’re about to make a plot and see if the assumptions we make about the relationship between the two measurements are backed up by a linear regression. Is the relationship between length and wingspan what we’d expect? Will a linear model be appropriate or are we going to have to break out the heavier machinery?

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Drop That Body

Image being able to ‘just’ get rid of your body (and regrow a replacement one of course) when it’s giving you a hard time. That would be amazing when the aches and pains become, well, a pain. Researchers have just discovered two species of sea slug that do exactly that! The two species have been shown to shed their entire body (including major organs with the exception of the brain) and grow a new one when their parasite load becomes too high. Iinstead of trying to fight off the parasites, they simply let them go.

While they are busy growing their new body they ‘steal’ energy by incorporating the chloroplasts from their algal meals – which is then used for photosynthesis (known as kleptoplasy). This is a big step up from the usual instances of species being able to regrow something after willingly shedding them (autotomy) – which usually involves shedding a limb/appendage…

The shedded bodies never regrow a head – which begs the question if the headless horseman features in any of the sea slugs horror story lore – or, you know, if there are just a whole host of bodies floating around…

The full research article can be found here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2021.01.014

Jokes in Journals: Humour and Engagement in SciComm

Science communication in a post-truth world: promises and pitfalls (2019) Kopf et al., Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.2072

Communication in a Post-Truth World

Communicating the importance of restoring biodiversity and fighting against climate change is particularly crucial in a world where facts can be so easily distorted. Misinformation and fake news can be easily spread through social media and other online outlets, but the same outlets could also provide effective means of communication for scientific research. However there’s still a lot of work to be done figuring out how to use these new tools, and today’s paper looks at some of the pitfalls involved.

NB: This paper is very well-written, and it’s definitely worth your time to read the whole thing. It’s not open access, but if you get in touch with the authors I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to send out a copy.

The Fine Line of SciComm

We have a pretty solid idea now of the fact that scientific communication needs to be both engaging and factual, yet scientists often forget one of the two. The authors bring up the recent ‘insectageddon‘ paper, a piece of scientific literature which was widely circulated in the media but made claims on a global scale which the data didn’t really support. While it undoubtedly alerted many people worldwide to a serious problem, the dishonest communication employed could potentially damage people’s trust in science.

Humour is a fantastic form of engaging scientific communication, which can (albeit rarely) be used in scientific literature. For a great example, check out the two papers below.

A Final Warning to Planet Earth features the fantastic line “[w]e therefore strongly oppose the agenda accompanying the warning to humanity and will not tolerate any obstacle to our way of life – be it tree-huggers or the trees themselves.”

The effects of climate change on Australia’s only endemic Pokémon – I wrote about my experience reviewing this paper last week, so go ahead and check it out.

However these carry with them dangers. We don’t expect scientific papers to be sarcastic, so it’s not a huge surprise when the authors point out that the first of these papers has already been cited as if it is a serious publication.

More worrying is the second example today’s authors present. A satirical paper by Leonard Leibovici made the claim that praying for someone’s recovery 4-10 years AFTER their hospitalisation was effective. The paper is obviously a joke, but it has been cited often by religious groups as proof of the power of prayer.

Final Frustrations

I chose to review this article because it encapsulates some of the frustrations I wrote about last week. Funny and engaging scientific communication should not be shied away from. Using humour and other more personal forms of communication humanises scientists and can engender more trust in us. It’s why I started a podcast looking at the biology of movie monsters. And there are plenty of scientists out there using humour to great effect.

Yet there are certain aspects of the way scientists communicate information – chief among them scientific articles – that are so rigid and inflexible that any novel approaches to them come with pitfalls attached. I reiterate my hope from last week that we’ll be able to change this going forward.


Dr. Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist and climate data analyst who completed his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.

Title Image Credit: Bernard Spragg

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