Author Archives: Sam Perrin

Ecological Modelling, the Coronavirus, and Why They’re Not A Perfect Match

Image Credit: Pharexia, Ratherous, AKS471883, Source Data from  Johns Hopkins University CSSEThe Centers for Disease Control and PreventionNew York TimesCNBC.

As it quickly became clear in late February and early March that COVID-19 was not going away anytime soon, attention turned to trying to figure out when and where the virus would spread. Epidemiologists and virologists have had their work cut out for them, trying to simultaneously reassure and warn people the world over about the dangers, the nature and the potential timeline of the virus.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise to see ecologists try and tip their hat into the ring. Early on in the pandemic, teams of ecologists sprang up, trying to use Species Distribution Models to predict the spread of the virus. And whilst this might sound helpful, many of these studies lacked collaboration with epidemiologists, and their predictions very quickly fell flat. Some studies suggested that areas like Brazil and Central Africa would be largely spared by the virus, which quickly turned out not to be the case. Flaws in the studies were spotted quite quickly by concerned members of both the ecological and epidemiological communities alike, and a few teams got started on responses.

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Aliens & Invaders & Exotics, Oh My: The Language of Invasive Biology

The Burmese python, which has spread throughout the Everglades in Florida as a result of accidental or intentional releases by pet owners (Image Credit: US NInvaders, Aliens, and tational Park ServicePublic Domain Mark 1.0, Image Cropped)

Language is important. It’s a lesson many biological scientists would have learned a long time ago if we hadn’t kept social sciences at such a wary arm’s length. Ecologists have a tendency to label and relabel ecological concepts (anyone up for a debate about the word ‘niche’?), species and even global phenomena (think global warming vs. climate change) based on anything from shifts in public perception to new findings that challenge our earlier labels.

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Measuring the Popularity of North American Birds

The largest owl in North America, the Snowy Owl. New research shows that this individuals size may help with his popularity among us humans, but his lack of colour might not (Image Credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)

Characterizing the cultural niches of North American birds (2019) Schuetz & Johnston, PNAS, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1820670116

The Crux

For all our attempts to maintain objectivity in science, often the reality is that the more people value a bird species, the more likely our conservation efforts are to be successful through public support. As such, figuring out which birds are popular, and where, could give us some crucial information on where we’ll need to fight hardest to help species persist, and where our efforts at science communication could use some work.

This week we look at a novel paper that tries to assess which types of North American birds are popular with the public, and whether that popularity is confined only to their home states, or whether it is shown in surrounding areas as well.

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The Public and Private Faces of Birds with Professor Dan Baldassarre

More than perhaps any other taxa, birds have managed to associate themselves with the beauty of nature. An ecosystem devoid of bird calls just feels like it’s missing something, and whilst tigers, koalas and elephants might be the face of many a conservation movement, you can’t lure them to your backyard or local park with a simple feeder (at least I hope not). The bird-watching community worldwide is massive, and ranges from casual backyard birders to those who are willing to travel far and wide to see a new species.

For bird scientists, there are pros and cons to the public’s love affairs with birds. The bird community is a huge source of information and a great place to raise awareness of conservation issue. Yet at the same time, our idealisation of birds has led to a lot of misconceptions, both about their population health and their private lives.

Professor Dan Baldassare came into bird ecology through a fascination with animal behaviour. The author of the fantastic paper “The Deal With Birds” (which we’ll get into in a subsequent article, Dan has spent his academic career studying the lives of a range of birds, from the striking Northern Cardinal to the incredible vampire ground finch.

I spoke to Dan recently about our relationships with birds, some of the positives that have come from it, and how our perception of them may have blinded us to some of the realities of their lives.

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On Fish Dispersal and the Perpetual Evil of the Duck

Image Credit: Norbert Nagel, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image Credit

Woe betide my fishy ancestors, for I am come here today to vent my grievances at a paper so dastardly it has cast a tepid patina of anxiety on a LOT of the structured squabbling my colleagues and I call ‘research’.

Actually, I shouldn’t vent too harshly on the sarcopterygiites, those ancient lobe-finned ancestors of ours and their close cousins the regular fish. Birds, as always, are the main culprit here. An abhorrent series of mutations that messed up a perfectly good reptile.

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The Varying Roles of Indigenous, Government, and Private Protected Areas in Conservation

The Gawler Ranges, an area of Indigenous protected land in South Australia (Image Credit: Korkut Tas, CC BY-SA 3.0, Image Cropped)

Differences among protected area governance types matter for conserving vegetation communities at-risk of loss and fragmentation (2020) Archibald et al., Biological Conservation, 247, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2020.108533

The Crux

The designation of Protected Areas (PAs) has been a key tool in the fight to retain biodiversity and restore ecosystems globally. Designating a region as protected goes a long way to ensuring the survival of a wide rage of species, both locally and on much larger scales. In recent decades, private PAs have been growing in number, and on top of that, 7.8 million squared kilometres worldwide are now registered as Indigenous PAs. As a result, conservation goals are often formed with all three types of protected area in mind.

There has been ample research showing that all three types of PA have been effective in conserving wildlife and habitat types. But all three have different characteristics, both in governance and allocation. Today’s authors wanted to find out whether they protected different types of habitat, and what that could mean for conservation policy going forward.

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Esther Ngumbi: Food Security in the Face of Climate Change

One of the few positives to come out of a recent spate of catastrophic weather events has been the fact that climate change is now nigh on undeniable, and more people than ever are working to prevent its future effects. Yet there are parts of the world in which climate change is more than the progenitor of random disasters, where it has become an everyday reality.

One such area is sub-Saharan Africa. Despite being one of the poorest regions of the world, it’s also a region that has enormous potential for agricultural transformation, helping to solve not only local food crises, but global ones as well. A prominent example is Kenya, where the agricultural sector contributes to over half of the Gross Domestic Product, and provides food and employment for more than 80% of the population. Working for Kenya and other countries in the region is the chance to avoid mistakes made by other regions in the past, as they benefit both from hindsight and improved technology. Yet working against them is that encroaching threat of climate change.

It’s a topic that Assistant Professor Esther Ngumbi, of the University of Illinois has been vocal about. Esther grew up on a farm in rural Kenya, and has witnessed the effects of increased drought and weather variability over the last decade. Esther’s work on food security in Africa has seen her work published in everything from the Journal of Chemical Ecology to Times Magazine.

At 2019’s BES Annual meeting, I got the chance to speak to Esther about everything from African governments to the shifting of climate baselines.

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Skype a Scientist: Breaking Down The Barriers Between Science and the Public

As with most of society, the COVID-19 virus has changed how ecological scientists have operated over the last few months. For some, field seasons ground to a halt as the requisite travel and cooperative work became impractical, or even dangerous. Productivity dropped for many as working from home or general anxiety took its toll. Others saw it as an opportunity to take science in new and interesting directions.

One such group was the Skype a Scientist team, who science communication initiative has flourished over the last month. The group facilitates informal online meetings between scientists and classrooms, and with a sudden global boom in video conferencing ability, its no wonder that Skype a Scientist has seen a rise in popularity. In light of the current situation, the program has even been expanded to include families, and any group of more than five students.

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