Whilst making people aware of the consequences of climate change and land fragmentation is important, choosing how to deliver that message is equally important (Image Credit: Backbone Campaign, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped)
Are polar bear habitat resource selection functions developed from 1985-1995 data still useful? (2019) Durner et. al, Ecology and Evolution, https://doi.org/10.1002/ece3.5401
Ecologists often attempt to predict where species are using the spread of the resources that the species depends upon. This is done because often it’s simply easier to monitor the resources than the species. Resource selection functions (RSFs) are a tool which use the likelihood of a resource being used to predict a species distribution. However, if the landscape the resource is found in changes drastically, a resource selection function may start to be less useful.
In the early 2000s, using data collected in the 80s and 90s, US scientists developed RSFs for polar bears, a species which has regrettably become the poster child for the survival of the Arctic ecosystem. Even back then, the bears’ preferred habitat was receding. Now, with human-driven climate change severely reducing sea ice and markedly altering the bears’ habitat, this week’s authors wanted to know how well those RSFs work nowadays.
Teaching complicated ecological concepts to kids isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Sure, I can explain the Coriolis effect to a bunch of Bachelor’s students, but teaching geographic range expansion to a six-year old is a different prospect. I’m lucky in that I have a kid who is already quite interested in the natural world, but it doesn’t automatically mean that he’ll take on board things like evolution, biological invasions, the MacArthur-Wilson Theory of Island Biogeography. So whenever there’s a weird opportunity to relate my kid’s interests to my work, I jump at it.
This installment includes thoughts from (left to right) Dag Hessen, Erica McAlister, Rasmus Hansson and Prue Addison (Image Credits: Dag Hessen, University of Oslo; Erica McAlister, CC BY-SA 2.0; Miljøpartiet de Grønne, CC BY-SA 2.0; Synchronicity Earth, CC BY 2.0)
Running EcoMass means we get to sit down with some exceptionally interesting ecologists, conservations, and in this post, even environmental politicians. Most of these individuals have been a part of the discipline for much longer than we have, so when we get the chance we pick their brains about how ecology has changed over the past decades. It’s always interesting to hear which aspects of ecological life we take for granted simply weren’t there 40, 30 or even 10 years ago.
You can also check out parts one (link), two (link) and three (link) of our Changing Face of Ecology specials, and click on the names below to read our full interviews with each of this issue’s respondents.
Tim Robertson, Head of Informatics, Global Biodiversity Information Facility
Biological Data Management
I would say that I see much more collaboration today across our community, and willingness to work together and share data than when I joined 12 years ago. I think there’s less competition and there’s more willingness to share content, software and expertise. That has been a very rewarding thing to be part of. I work at GBIF, which is really more of a community than an organisation, and as a product of that change the community has grown very healthily.
Dag Hessen, Professor, Section for Aquatic Biology and Toxicology, University of Oslo
Aquatic Biology, Ecological Author
I think ecology is probably one of the topics that have changed the least. We got the basic concepts like food webs, trophic cascades etc. decades ago. But since then I think ecology has evolved too little.
I think what has changed is the type of analysis that’s done. You used to be able to go to a conference and present data from “your lake”. Just one lake. And there was someone in the audience who might raise their hand afterwards and say, maybe that’s what happens in your lake, but not in my lake. It was a very phenomenological way of thinking, which isolated case studies didn’t help. So the advent of meta analysis, time series, large spatial studies, these things that were seen as pretty laborious before have now become hot stuff. And it’s helped improve our statistical analysis.
Erica McAlister, Senior Curator, Diptera, Natural History Museum, London
Entomology, Evolutionary Genetics
We’re becoming very difficult to understand to the layperson. If you’d walked into a genetics talk at a conference these days today with no understanding of molecular incrimination, you would have struggled. We have to think about how we can communicate better. When we communicate to a wider, maybe not scientific, audience, it would be better to focus on what we’ve understood from the data, not get tangled up in methodology and vernacular. I do think we’re becoming more and more exclusive within science and in disciplines – we’re having issues communicating amongst ourselves at times due to such much science speak.
On the plus side, we can ask so much now. I don’t have to be a specialist in one discipline anymore, I can facilitate and work alongside other people with other backgrounds, which is great. I’ve got sequencing projects, morphology projects and then biodiversity projects and food security projects. I get to do all of that. So in many ways it’s brilliant that we’ve got all this technology, we’ve just got to be careful how we use it and phrase it.
Carsten Rahbek, Professor, Natural History Museum of Denmark
Global Ecology, Evolution and Climate
When I was doing my PhD thesis at the Smithsonian, I could go down to the library and sit there, and go through all the relevant journals in my field, and get an overview. That’s impossible today. The success and the relevance of ecology has caused a massive explosion of data and knowledge. So the amount of scientists working with this is immense.
Now sometimes we have the view that the more information we get the better. But massive information can lead to us not being able to tell up from down. So now we have the challenge of figuring out how to deal with all this information, so we can still extract and deduct sensible things out of it. Because if we’re just taking the consensus or the average, it’s going to be very skewed. So how do we deal with that?
Prue Addison, Conservation Strategy Director at the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust
I think the most relevant change for me is the emergence of the field of applied research and knowledge exchange, actually achieving research impacts. It’s a growing discipline, and more and more scientists are really jumping into it. They’re asking how do we make our research more relevant, and we do that by working with end users, decision makers, the people who use the science, in a far more collaborative way. Rather than “scientist does research, publishes paper, expects the world to read it”. This is far more about, “scientist produces science that will help influence real decisions”. We want to have environmental benefits, we want to go and work out who we can work with that has the power to make decisions. To change how the environment will actually be in the future.
Whilst it is definitely improving, it’s still quite slow. The talk is happening. We know that research needs to have real societal impact and become more relevant. But metrics aren’t in place yet to evaluate whether Universities are actually doing that.
Rasmus Hansson, former leader of the Norwegian Green Party
When I grew up there was no ministry of the environment. There were no environmental studies, there was no environmental law. There was no environmental technology. There was no sector of business that made jobs and profits out of environmental solutions.
I would argue that environmentalism and everything connected to it is the biggest political and social change that has happened in Western society in the last 50 years. It is the most important project in any society. Even Russia and China have now had to become environmentally conscious. The change is colossal. The first environmental minister in Norway, more or less the first environmental minister in the world only came along sometime in the 70s. If you go back to the 1960s and take away environmentalism the world would be hell today. It would be absolute mayhem. So that’s the difference. The problem is whether development has already gone too far. Are we too far gone in terms of carbon emissions, land use? But either way, we have slowed our planet’s descent down enormously compared to what would have happened if [the environmental] movement had not started in the 1970s.
Contrasting consequences of climate change for migratory geese: Predation, density dependence and carryover effects offset benefits of high-arctic warming (2019) Layton-Matthews et al., Global Change Biology, DOI: 10.1111/gcb.14773
Most of us know that climate change will bring warmer, shorter winters to most parts of the world. For many species in areas like the Arctic, it would be easy to interpret this as a good thing – plants grow earlier, so animals get more food, right? Naturally it’s never that simple. Many herbivorous species have evolved in sync with climate cycles so that their reproduction peaks when food becomes available. If season start dates change, these species may not be able to change their own cycles in time. Additionally, what happens if populations of their predators suddenly boom?
Today’s authors wanted to know what role a warming climate played in the population fluctuations of migratory barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis).
What They Did
The population of barnacle geese studied have their breeding grounds on Svalbard, an island north of mainland Norway that lies deep in the Arctic circle. The geese migrate here from the south (Scotland) every year, hatching around the start of July. Data on bird clutch size and success hatching data was used to determine reproductive success of the geese, whilst mark-recapture data was used to determine their survival chances at different life stages. Data was collected over the last three decades, with over three thousand nests and five thousand individuals monitored in this time.
Survival data was compared to climate data like date of spring onset, average temperature and variation in rainfall, which attempted to capture the likely amount of food the herbivorous geese had access to. Estimates of Arctic fox (Vulpus lagopus) predation at their breeding grounds in Svalbard were also used to see how predator populations affected the geese.
What They Found
Whilst egg production for the geese increased, it was offset by increasing mortality among young geese. This was likely driven by an increase in Arctic fox numbers. Any benefits that increased populations may have had also may have been countered by density-dependent effects during winter in Scotland – when populations increase resources dry up and reproduction rates suffer.
Did You Know: Mark-Capture Data
The survival of every individual in a population is almost always impossible to determine. Ecologists have adapted, and mark-recapture models have become one of the more popular ways to determine the chance of an individual having survived over a time period. It simply involves marking a series of captured individuals of a population, and seeing how many of them were recaptured after a given time. It may sound like a stab in the dark, but modern statistics has made it possible to obtain quite accurate survival data using this technique.
Whilst the researchers did have climate data for the wintering and spring stopover grounds for the geese, the data which came from Svalbard was much more detailed. whilst the results here are quite in-depth, it still remains that there’s a large chunk of very relevant data missing. Getting similar data from spring and winter grounds would naturally make the results more informative, but it would also take an enormous amount of time and resources.
More resources doesn’t just mean more geese. Areas like Svalbard have fairly simple food webs, with relatively few predator and prey species. But the interactions between these species can still be complex. More reindeer carcasses (another result of climate change, read more about it here) mean more foxes, which means more predation on geese. Less ice also means more polar bears getting stranded on Svalbard, many of which have started preying on goose eggs.
Results like these give much needed insight into how food webs will morph as temperatures increase. If we can develop models for simple ecosystems that are being affected more strongly than others now, it means we can create complex models when climate change starts hitting other regions harder.