Author Archives: Sam Perrin

On Dispersal, Connectivity and the Will of the Fish

Image Credit: Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped

Integrating dispersal along freshwater systems in species distribution models (2020) Perrin et. al., Diversity & Distributions, https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.13112

The Crux

Trying to figure out where a species can comfortably live is one thing, but figuring out which habitats they can actually access is another. I like to think most marsupials would do quite well in South America or Africa, but the fact is that they’re not dispersing across the Atlantic or Pacific anytime soon. However a Species Distribution Model (a statistical model that can be used to predict the likelihood of a species being found somewhere) often requires a more nuanced approach than “big ocean separating these two habitats”.

To integrate a species’ ability to actually access an area into a Species Distributions Model (SDM), we often use the concept of connectivity. Often, this means simply measuring the distance between two populations. But sometimes a species ability to disperse might not reflect something as simple as how far it needs to go. A perfectly good habitat might be only 100 metres away, but cut off by a raging great cliff. Or a road.

In this study, we wanted to see whether we could relate connectivity parameters used in an SDM to the actual ability of the species to disperse.

What We Did

We used two separate study systems here. One consisted of roughly 300 lakes within Northern Norway housed within a single catchment, or watershed, whereby a single path between each lake could be traced. Here we had presence-absence records for two species, the northern pike (Esox lucius) and the European perch (Perca fluviatilis). Both are native to the region, but they are starting to expand into more lakes and have a more severe effect as the climate warms. We used an SDM to investigate which factors determined species presence, including connectivity variables like the length of the rivers between each lake and a downstream population, and the average slope of those rivers.

The second ecosystem was a series of lakes in Sweden which pike and perch had previously occupied, but had been removed from in the 60s and 70s through the use of rotenone, a chemical dumped in small lakes which wipes out fish populations. These were useful, as we knew that the lakes were otherwise suitable for the species given their presence beforehand. As such, here we used a much simpler model to focus on dispersal ability, simply comparing whether or not the species were able to access and then recolonise the lakes from which they had been removed. We compared successful recolonisation from the nearest downstream lake to the same connectivity parameters as in the larger model.

Did You Know: Island Biogeography & Lakes

They obviously don’t look it, but when it comes to biogeography, lakes are essentially a special type of island. Most of the rules of island biogeography apply to them (for fish anyway); larger lakes are more likely to have more species, lakes close to the ocean or other large lakes (the ‘mainland’) are more likely to have those species as well. The big difference between regular islands and lakes is that we can mark pathways between them much more easily. You’d think that would make it easy for us to stop fish spreading into new lakes as the climate warms, but the problem is as always people – people often spread fish from lake to lake, and the rules of island biogeography don’t apply in quite the same way to someone with a car.

What We Found

The slope of the river was a much more important factor in determining a species presence than the actual distance between populations. This makes sense, as a steep slope could make it difficult for a fish to swim up, or could indicate the presence of a waterfall. Furthermore, adding connectivity parameters to our SDM in our first study system did improve our models, but did it represent dispersal accurately?

For pike, the effect of slope was pretty consistent across the two study systems, indicating that the effects of connectivity in a large SDM can mirror a species dispersal ability. However for perch there was some inconsistency across the two study systems, indicating that perhaps there was some other aspect of the rivers between populations that had a larger effect on dispersal.

While European perch might be native to parts of Scandinavia, it is alien to others. If it’s able to freely disperse between lakes, it could be a serious problem as the climate warms (Image Credit: Christa Rohrbach, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Problems?

This study suffers from the same “lab vs. field” pitfalls as any other experiment that compares a complex study system to a smaller, ‘simpler’ one. Here, time is a factor. Our first study system looks at populations that have had centuries, in some cases millenia, to establish, whereas the second one looks at short-term re-establishments. It’s possible that given enough time, pike or perch could have eventually recolonised some of those lakes.

So What?

Having an idea of the effect of how different slope measurements can affect the dispersal of species is a great help, as it lets us know which lakes are protected by natural dispersal barriers, and which are likely to be invaded by species moving from downstream. However the fact that for perch, slope parameters varied in their effects across the study systems is a stern reminder that we need to always be mindful of how connectivity parameters actually relate to dispersal ability.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who is now completely done with this paper and never wants to look at it again. 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.

On The Brink: A Demand For More Ecology Board Games

This weekend I’ve got some friends coming around to play Evolution: Climate with my wife and me. I’ve never been much of a board game type, but my friends learned recently that if you slap an ecology (or comic book) theme on anything I’ll be there with bells on. Evolution looks like it’ll be fun, but first I wanted to get weirdly passionate and talk about a childhood game that really drove me towards ecology as a kid.

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Here Kitty: Our Love-Hate Relationship With Feral Cats

Image Credit: Alexey Komarov, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped

While outdoor and feral cats are pretty universally accepted by scientists these days to be environmental hazards of the most destructive kind, the fact remains that they’re… well, cats. They’ve been companion animals for millenia, and often the general public react strongly against proposed measures for feral cats (or even to being told to keep their own cats indoors).

So why is it that despite a wealth of science making the case for feral cat management, many people simply can’t get on board with keeping them in check? And why do ecologists even need the public onside in the first place?

To dig a bit deeper, I spoke to Brooke Deak, a socioecologist based at the University of Adelaide. Brooke has spent the last three years studying the feral cat management debate, trying to better understand the relationship between feral cats and the general public.

Sam Perrin (SP): I guess before we start talking about feral cats, we should start talking about what constitutes a feral cat. What makes a cat a feral, a stray, or just an outdoor cat?

Brooke Deak, University of Adelaide (BD): In Australia it’s easier to tell the difference between the categories of cat. Feral cats here have minimal contact with humans, they don’t use human resources or take food from us. They may have been born as domestic cats, but they’ve escaped and their kittens have been born out in the wild. Stray cats in Australia are semi-domestic cats. They may wander around, but they’re reliant on humans to some degree. And then you have the domestic indoor cats. 

But in the US, Europe and Canada, it’s very tricky to define them. Especially in the US, where every single county and state you go into has a different definition of what a feral cat is. It makes it hard for management purposes to get in there and to know what to do with them. Are they people’s pets if they spend some time in feral cat colonies? Do you Trap-Neuter-Release, or do you kill them, if there’s a chance a human somewhere feeds it sometimes?

SP: Your research focuses on public perception of feral cat management. Why is it so important to get the public onside when it comes to managing invasive species like cats?

Without public support, invasive species management programs often fail. Social license from the community is important to gain in order to use almost any management methods within a locality. Without this, management campaigns can become delayed for years or sometimes indefinitely.

That’s why we need public support, and why it’s important to engage with the community. We need to understand their ideas the public and their attitudes towards invasive species and the effects of those species. It is also important just to bring awareness to the community as to what’s going on, and to bridge the gap between the government and the public as well in terms of building trust. There’s a lot of dimensions to public support for invasive species.

Brooke, seen here with a farmer (left), has spent the last three years getting to grips with the complexities of our attitudes to feral cats. Farmers are often more familiar with the problems they bring, as they are impacted more directly by the cat populations (Image Credit: Michael Rogers, CC BY 2.0)

SP: The anti-science brigade are fairly vocal these days, often with regards to the climate change debate. Yet even people who are all about listening to science in the climate debate will ignore the overwhelming evidence that feral cats – and really all outdoor cats – are bad for the environment. Why is there that rejection of the science in this case?

I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there. There are so many people who get information from places that aren’t completely scientific or don’t have all of the facts. In my experience in the US, there are a lot of people who really advocate for outdoor and feral cats, and a lot of the misinformation about these cats comes from them, saying that we need to save these animals. It gives people the impression that feral cats aren’t that bad, when in fact there are so many negative impacts that they have, such as on humans, on other species of cat, on native felids, and what they can do to pet cats themselves.

Related: Outdoor Cats are a Problem

Then of course there are the people who might accept that outdoor and feral cats do have a negative impact but refuse to believe that their own cat is part of that problem, despite all the scientific evidence that says that it IS a problem, and perhaps there’s an emotional aspect to that too.

SP: The main thing we associate with outdoor and feral cats is their killing of wildlife, but of course there are a lot of other dangers they pose too.

So there’s not much hybridisation here in Australia, but in Europe they have the Scottish wildcat for one, who are already threatened. And there’s definitely a danger to that population due to them hybridising with feral cats. Then further south in Europe you have the Iberian lynx. Feral cats can spread feline leukaemia to the lynx, which hurts those populations even further. 

I don’t think enough people know about that, it’s definitely a big problem wherever there are native felids. Populations are going downhill because of this domestic cat species. They’ll be in danger of extinction if we don’t do something about the feral cats.

Whilst the Iberian lynx is not the same species as the domestic cat (it's not even the same genus), they are still threatened by hybridisation and disease transmission through feral cats (Image Credit: Ex-situ Conservation, CC BY 3.0 ES)
Whilst the Iberian lynx is not the same species as the domestic cat (it’s not even the same genus), they are still threatened by hybridisation and disease transmission through feral cats (Image Credit: Ex-situ Conservation, CC BY 3.0 ES)

SP: As opposed to killing feral cats, many organisations and researchers have proposed the Trap-Neuter-Release approach, whereby a feral cat is caught, desexed, and returned to the wild. The theory is that it prevents the cats from reproducing, keeping down the population long term. How effective is TNR?

Actually I don’t think it’s effective anywhere to be honest, especially not in Australia. Even if you neuter them so they can’t birth more kittens, they’re still going to be out there killing, and it only takes one cat to decimate an entire population of a small mammal or bird species. It might be effective in terms of getting rid of the cat’s reproductive abilities, but not in terms of their impact. After being neutered, they’re still out there killing and spreading disease. 

It might work in the long, long term to manage the populations, but it’s not very realistic. I don’t think there are the resources or funding to make it work effectively, in the US or Australia. It’s definitely not an option for Australia, because we have so many endangered species that are really under immediate threat from cats.

SP: There are a lot of different techniques for dealing with feral cats. You were able to fill out an entire seven minute video explaining them all (linked below). How good is public knowledge of these different techniques?

Not very. It depends on familiarity with the methods and the feral cats debate in the first place. You have farmers who are much more familiar with control techniques. Certainly sheep farmers and people with livestock, because they’re directly affected by the feral cat presence.

People in residential areas aren’t as familiar. That’s understandable, most of the time it doesn’t impact them. But for some management plans, we’ve had issues using poisons or traps designed for cats. Because people aren’t familiar with the science behind the methods, they hear the word ‘poison’ and think “oh you can’t have that around kids and pets and other wildlife”.

SP: Invasive species are the second biggest threat to biodiversity worldwide, and Australia has had a plethora of bad experiences on that front. Yet cats have often somehow managed to frame themselves as outside of the invasive species debate. Why is that??

I think just because we think of them as companion animals. People have cats which creates more of an emotional bond. They see a feral cat and think it’s just like their house cat. They don’t really realise what they’d get themselves into if they went to pet it. 

Also, feral cats in Australia are out in the bushland mostly. You do get some in cities, but not many. It means the nature of feral cats is just not something that they’re very familiar with. The only association they have with cats are cute domestic ones. You wouldn’t own a fox. You could try, but it’s not a great idea.

SP: During the bushfires earlier this year we heard a lot about the plight of the koala. But of course there were a lot of smaller mammals and birds that really suffered as well, and many of those effects were exacerbated by the cats picking off whatever escaped the fires. Are there any species we should be especially concerned about, with bushfire seasons around the counter in Australia?

One in particular is the kangaroo island dunnart. It was in peril before the bushfires and now it’s even worse because the feral cats have been on the edge of the fire line on the island. They’ve been hunting everything and the poor little dunnarts, they don’t really have anywhere to go. I think they’re recovering now slowly, very slowly.

That was the case with a lot of species when the bushfires tore through Australia. The cats had a smorgasbord, and just sat on the edge of the fireline and killed everything that came by. It was awful.

To find out more about Brooke’s work, follow her on Twitter @Deakology.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who is really sick of explaining to his friends back home that Mittens is still a murder machine even though he’s got a bell on his collar. 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.

Cool As A Moose?

Guest post by Katariina Vuorinen

Cool as a moose: How can browsing counteract climate warming effects across boreal forest ecosystems? (2020) Vuorinen et al., Ecology, https://doi.org/10.1002/ecy.3159

The Crux

When temperatures increase, trees grow more. When a moose struts in and eats the twigs, trees grow less. So, if we just have enough moose around, climate warming won’t be able to increase the growth rate of trees. This is what we call the “cooling” effect. Rather simple – and cool – story, right?

However, every ecologist knows that the biological theatre is more complex than this. What if snow protects saplings against browsing? What if changes in temperature affect moose in such a way that they will not feed on trees in the same way as they used to? What if trees’ response to moose is actually different depending on whether it is warm or cold? In complex ecological systems, tree growth is determined in an intricate network of interactions, where the story line is so mind-bogglingly complicated that it seems almost impossible to say what is actually going on.

Luckily, it’s not quite impossible. In this paper, we set out to model those intricate networks, taking into account everything from the climate, the tree species, the effect of time, to the presence of herbivores and their browsing intensity, in an attempt to disentangle that complex biological theatre.

What We Did

To get a baseline impression of what happens to trees when moose aren’t around, we set up fences to keep the voracious ungulates away. Originally, this fencing was started by NTNU University Museum in Trøndelag, later expanding to 62 sites scattered across Norway and eastern Canada. As moose can only browse on relatively small trees, fences were placed in clear-cut areas where we could monitor the growth of the trees from the sapling phase.

After keeping track of the height of hundreds of trees inside and outside of the fences for more than a decade, we had assembled over 16 000 growth measurements. These were accompanied by annual estimations of the proportion of browsed twigs. Based on existing knowledge about which plant species the moose preferred, we also estimated the amount of food available for moose at each site. The tree growth and browsing data were complemented with data on three climatic variables, namely, growth period temperature, precipitation and winter snow-water equivalent, as well as data on regional moose density.

To grow or not to grow: for a rowan or a birch, a protective fence (on the left side in the photo) might be a matter of life and dead (Image credit: Katariina E. M. Vuorinen, CC BY 2.0)

We analyzed the data with structural equation models (SEMs) that combine multiple predictors and response variables into one big model network. A SEM allows you to treat an environmental variable both as an explanatory variable and a response variable simultaneously. For instance, the amount of competing trees could be explained by moose presence, but it itself could explain tree growth.

Did You Know

Herbivore cooling effects are better documented in arctic and alpine systems, where smaller woody plants namely shrubs, play the role of the trees. Empirical studies have shown that for example reindeer can slow down climate-change driven shrubification that would otherwise result in loss of open tundra. However, also in the arctic, herbivore effects take multiple forms: sheep effect seem to be modified by climate, potentially via plant-plant competition.

What We Found

Three of the studied tree species played along with the simple cooling story: Canadian rowan and birch and Norwegian birch. They benefited from higher temperatures and suffered from moose. However, most of the tree species wrote their own, more nuanced narratives. Canadian fir responded more weakly to temperature when moose were missing. Norwegian rowan flipped its temperature response curve around if moose were present. Norwegian pine responded negatively to temperature, but did not seem to be bothered by moose. This is understandable, as heat turns into an enemy when it gets too hot. The soft, palatable species took more damage from moose than spiky spruce and pine.

From a tree’s point of view, the role of a moose can change from a foe to a friend if the moose browses on a neighbouring competitor tree. Canadian fir and rowan and Norwegian birch and pine benefited from the fact that moose lowered the growth of competing trees. Snow complicated the story even further. Norwegian rowan benefited from increasing winter precipitation, but only outside of the fences, suggesting that individual trees were indeed protected from browsing by a snow layer. This is potentially a result of snow lowering the proportion of browsed twigs. Interestingly, also temperature affected browsing intensity, but the effect size and direction varied between different tree species.

The bottom line given by these results is clear: the moose cooling effect exists, but how important it is really depends on ecological context.

Problems

We always need to careful when assessing results obtained by using datasets of different accuracies. Where locally estimated browsing data was highly precise, regional moose density and climate data were less so. Thus, the effect strengths may partly reflect differences in data quality rather than true differences between explanatory variables. Overcoming these weaknesses might reveal side-plots yet to be unravelled.

So What?

So, if the pathways of climate effects are this complex, what is actually going to happen in the boreal forests when temperatures rise? Some tree species may benefit from increase of temperature just to end up on the moose dinner menu. Less tasty ones may thrive, or suffer from excess heat and increased competition. If global warming brings us snowless springs, cooling potential of browsing may increase. In contrast, if we get more snow with increasing precipitation, moose may turn into a trivial side-character.

In the complex interplay of biotic and abiotic actors, only one thing is certain: that we do not know what will happen outside the observed variable boundaries. Interactions and non-linearities make any future predictions highly uncertain. If we are to place hope on herbivory as a cooler of climate change impacts, constraints imposed by species differences, snow, competition, as well as climate effects on browsing must be acknowledged – not so neat of a story, and perhaps less cool, but nearer the ecological reality.

Katariina E. M. Vuorinen is a PhD candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. She studies the effects of climate and large herbivores on plants by using data from across boreal and arctic biomes. You can read more about her work at this link.

Title Image Credit: James D. M. Speed, NTNU University Museum, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

On The Trail Of The World’s Fluffiest Alien: The Musk Ox

Image Credit: Hannes Grobe, CC BY-SA 2.5, Image Cropped

Last month I found myself in the middle of Norway’s Dovre mountains. It’s a gorgeous region, with picturesque landscape stretching out well beyond the limits of human vision, which applies to a lot of Norway in all honesty. My family chose Dovre as our stopover though, because it’s the home of the musk ox.

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How Well Do Biodiversity Experiments Represent The Real World?

The results of biodiversity–ecosystem functioning experiments are realistic (2020) Jochum et al., Nature Ecology and Evolution, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-1280-9

The Crux

Testing how different measures of biodiversity contribute to important ecosystem functions, like carbon cycling or tree decomposition, are crucial to our understanding of how the loss of species will impact both local and global ecosystems. Yet these studies are hard to undertake in the real world, since species come and go all the time, and constantly accounting for important environmental factors like temperature or sunshine can be near impossible. It makes understanding exactly what is driving those important ecosystem functions difficult.

To get around this, researchers often set up more controlled experiments, filled with different plots containing random assemblages of species often found in the wild. Since there are different communities in each plot, but each is subject to similar environmental conditions, they can examine the different levels of ecosystem functioning within the different plots and start to understand the differences. But since they’re taking random species of plants, is this even useful as an indicator of what’s going on in the ‘real world’? That’s what today’s researchers tested.

What They Did

The authors looked at two long-term grassland experiments, one based in Jena Germany, the other in Cedar Creek, USA. They compared different metrics of biodiversity (like species richness and taxonomic diversity) of the plots to similar areas in the nearby region. They used these comparisons to determine which of the plots in the controlled experiments were ‘realistic’.

Additionally, they compared whether the relationships between the biodiversity of the controlled plots and some of the key ecosystem functions remained the same when the unrealistic plots were removed from the analysis.

Did You Know: The Cedar Creek Experiment

The Cedar Creek experiment mentioned here is actually a smaller experiment taking place at the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. The Reserve has been a massive undertaking, first established in 1942 by the university of Minnesota. It includes literally thousands of long-term experimental plots set up by different researchers, and has contributed an immeasurable amount to our understanding of plant community ecology.

What They Found

The experimental plots showed a wider variety of communities than the real-world plots, but nestled within that variety were a large number of communities very similar to the real-world plots. Experimental plots tended to be much more similar to the real-world plots when they were not weeded, suggesting that human interference could create key differences between the two, as opposed to surrounding environmental conditions.

The researchers classed 28% and 77% of the Jena and Cedar Creek experiments as realistic, respectively. The relationships between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning remained relatively similar when removing the 23% of unrealistic Cedar Creek plots from analysis, however there was some variation in the relationship when removing the unrealistic plots from the German analysis (though many relationships remained similar).

Problems

The scope of this paper is massive, but it’s important to remember that the scale of these experiments were fairly local, and only dealt with one habitat type. That’s not to downplay the results, since this sort of experiment can of course be scaled up and repeated in other ecosystems. However a lot of the communities studied here both in the real-world and the experiments were quite species poor, so it would be interesting to see how similar research coped with more diverse ecosystems.

So What?

This research is tremendously encouraging (and probably let some researchers breathe a sigh of relief), as it validates the work that both the Cedar Creek and Jena teams have been doing to decades now. And whilst only a subset of their plots might be ‘realistic’, those unrealistic plots still tell us a great deal about potential future scenarios that could come about as a result of climate change or species migrations. Even knowing which plots are realistic will probably be very helpful for experiments going forward.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who is not fan of botany but concedes that it must have place somewhere in science. 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: Обновить фото обложки სანდრო აბაშიშვილი, CC0 1.0

Revisiting Uncertainty in Science After a Week of Reading Michael Crichton

Image Credit: Jurassic Park/Congo, 1993/1995

The topic of uncertainty in science fascinates me. Whilst like many scientists, I am constantly befuddled at the lack of trust in science by large swathes of the public, I’m equally troubled by the belief that science can provide all the answers to the world’s questions in a clean, timely fashion. The inherent uncertainty in the scientific method can make it frustrating for people who just want a nice clean answer to a problem, and instead get a rambling series of non-committal suggestions referencing likely outcomes and confidence intervals. We’re trained to think in uncertainties, but they’re difficult to communicate to a world whose faith in science seems to be wavering already.

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Big Fish, Small Fish, and How Body Size Decides Between Life And Death Around Humans

Guest post by Chloé Nater

Size‐ and stage‐dependence in cause‐specific mortality of migratory brown trout (2020) Nater at al., Journal of Animal Ecology, https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2656.13269

The Crux

When it comes to dying, not everyone is equal.

The corona-virus pandemic has reminded us of that over the last months: the same disease that passes often without any symptoms in young children is life-threatening for the elderly. Age, in this case, seems to influence how likely someone is to die from the disease. For other risks of death – take, for example, car accidents – age is not that important, but location may be: the chance of dying in a car accident is higher for someone who spends two hours per day commuting by car on a busy highway, than for someone who only needs to walk across one car-free road to get to work.

For animals, this is very much the same. They can die from a variety of causes (starving, predation, disease, hunting, etc.), and an individual animal’s risks of dying from any of these depend on characteristics like age, size, or colour, and on location. How many and which animals die from different causes then has consequences for the size of populations, and sometimes also for other species in the area, including humans.

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The Changing Face of Ecology: Part Six

Image Credit: Lahiru Prabudda Fernando, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped

In a year like 2020, when everything short-term seems disastrous, it’s hard to focus on long-term change. How everything from ecology’s relationship with the public, to the health of freshwater ecosystems, to just our general sanity seems to be in flux at the moment.

But we’ve been reading about that ad nauseam recently, and I’m sure there will be plenty more to come. So instead, let’s return to an ongoing segment, and have a look at some of the ways that ecology has changed over the last few decades, according to some of the intriguing and prominent researchers we’ve had the chance to speak to over the last few months.

As usual, full interviews with each ecologist can be found by clicking on their names.

Dan Baldassarre, Associate Professsor at the State University of New York, Oswego

Behavioural Ecology

I think for me probably the biggest thing has been the “-omics” explosion. Genomics, transcriptomics, microbiomics, the incorporation of genetic data into anything that anybody does. It has gotten cheaper and the software has gotten better, so it has just sort of exploded. When I started my dissertation I was really a behavioural ecologist, I didn’t know anything about genetics or wetlab work at all. I started dabbling a little bit with genetic techniques that when I started were pretty rudimentary compared to what people do now. What we can do now was completely unheard of back then. So I would say those types of technologies, and the expectations to have those types of data in a lot of ecology projects, that’s the biggest change for me.

Vigdis Vandvik, Centre Director for bioCEED, University of Bergen

Community & Global Change Ecology

The availability of big data, which has made global biogeography scale down and local experiments scale up. It’s meant that these two aspects of ecology on very different scales have started to meet.

But also, especially in the last few years, a big change has been the talk of ecology and sustainability as a global threat to the world economy in reports by organisations like IPBES and the World Economic Forum. In 2011 when climate change appeared on the WEF’s list of global economic threats I remember I felt the hairs rise on my neck. And even then, if someone had told me then that in 2020 almost all of the top ten threats to the world economy would just be biology-related, I would have bet half my house against that. If organisations like the WEF are recognising the severity of the climate crisis, it gives me hope.

David Lusseau, Professor at the Technical University of Denmark

Marine Sustainability

I think the biggest change has been that we now take the human element in ecology more seriously. Simply because it’s a more pressing need. During my undergraduate as an ecologist, I was working in population ecology, we were concerned about population growth rates, understanding the role of vital rates in population ecology. And we would process the data, create some models, and as far as conservation went, we would give the results to the managers and let them deal with it. And now we’re realising how important it is for ecologists to understand the human element in ecology. And not just from a conservation perspective, but as an interesting ecological topic in its own right. From the natural research perspective it’s an interesting subject to ask questions about. So I think that’s been the biggest change.

Screenshot from 2020-08-10 17-13-20

Pictured from left: Cecilia Medupin, Dan Baldassarre & Vigdis Vandvik (All images licenced to relevant ecologists, CC BY 2.0)

Cecilia Medupin, University of Manchester

Freshwater Ecology

Although my academic and work experience has been in industry, environmental regulation and academia, I have an overview of the social, technological, core biological and regulatory application of environmental management including river monitoring and assessment. In order to have a holistic understanding of environmental challenges, it is important to have a broader mind-set to informing solutions/decisions. For example, when I started my PhD, I wanted to understand the cause of pollution on an urban river. To do this effectively, I needed to relate with the regulators to acquire long term data for that location, connect with the water companies who manage the water infrastructure for that location, relate with members of the public and then relate with the researchers who were my supervisors. Ecology provides you with that type of opportunity. I have seen an increase in awareness of the need for this sort of integration, and funders are keen. We’re heading towards a future where environmental challenges to our rivers, our lakes can only be resolved through broader and effective interactions of disciplines and people. This way, we would make informed decisions and provide solutions that are stronger and more sustainable for all.

Jane Reid, International Chair Professor, Norwegian university of Science and Technology

Evolutionary Ecology

The increase in quantitative skills has been enormous because. When I did my PhD, I hadn’t really gotten any training in statistics, and certainly not in any form of statistical programming. An equivalent to R did not even exist yet. The level of my experience with statistical analysis coming out of my undergraduate were along the lines of doing a t-test or possibly a linear regression. That was all we had. And then even during my PhD, people were trying to run a mixed model, like a really simple Gaussian mixed model, and there was one person in the department that had some kind of software package that could just about do it, but only he knew how to do it. So anyone who wanted to use that approach had to talk to him and he had to battle with a programming language that could barely be said to have a user interface. So just the transformation in how we can now all implement really complicated statistical analyses has revolutionized things I think.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who is just hoping that ecology doesn’t change too much more before he finishes his PhD. 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.

The Changing Face of Ecology – Part One

The Changing Face of Ecology – Part Two

The Changing Face of Ecology – Part Three

The Changing Face of Ecology – Part Four

The Changing Face of Ecology – Part Five

Forecasting Europe’s (Very Specific) Rodent Problem

Image Credit: Birgit, Pixabay Licence, Image Cropped

The potential current distribution of the coypu (Myocastor coypus) in Europe and climate change induced shifts in the near future (2020) Schertler et al., NeoBiota, https://doi.org/10.3897/neobiota.58.33118

The Crux

For all my talk on not immediately demonising alien species, there are a plethora of annoying little critters who the label ‘invasive’ was made for. This is the case with the Coypu, an annoying beaver-like rodent initially from South America who has since spread through other parts of the world, including large swathes of Europe.

The Coypu is a textbook invader – it reproduces quickly, and though individuals don’t stray far from rivers, as a species they are capable of expanding their range very quickly. They destabilise riverbanks through their burrowing, which can lead to severe ecological and economical damage.

They are, however, quite sensitive to temperature, and as such it’s important to know what the effects of climate change will have on their distribution. Today’s authors set out to come up with a habitat suitability map for the Coypu in light of the rise in temperature we’re expecting in the coming decades.

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