Author Archives: Sam Perrin

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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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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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

Investigating the Invader-Pollinator Paradox

Image Credit: Ted, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped

Invader-pollinator paradox: Invasive goldenrods benefit from large-size pollinators (2021) Moroń, et al., Diversity and Distributions, https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.13221

The Crux

A plant that invades a new part of the world can’t necessarily bring its regular pollinators along with it. So it stands to reason that plants who successfully invade a new area receives pollination from native pollinators. Seems pretty straightforward, right?

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Of Foxes And Wolves, or, The Lady Who Threw Her Dog In A Bin

Image Credit: Dirk-Jan van Roest, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

Many parliamentary debates in Norway cover ground that is familiar to other countries; climate change, the economy, pandemic responses. Yet I’m happy to say there’s one issue that is more unique to this part of the world: what to do with all these wolves. Once native to Norway, wolves, bears and wolverines were largely pushed out of the country, but started to come back into parts of Norway in the 1970s after they became protected. Despite what one of Liam Neeson’s better old-man-action films would have you believe, wolves are shy but curious creatures and of no real danger to people. However their reintroduction has generally been met with a mix of both consternation and celebration, with urban populations cheering the reintroduction of a former native and rural populations wary of the thought of sharing space with wolves.

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Light At The End Of The Tunnel For The Tasmanian Devil

Image Credit: Mattias Appel, CC BY-ND 2.0

Image Credit: Mattias Appel, CC BY-ND 2.0, Image Cropped

Quantifying 25 years of disease‐caused declines in Tasmanian devil populations: host density drives spatial pathogen spread (2021) Cunningham et al., Ecology Letters, https://doi.org/10.1111/ele.13703

The Crux

While the Tasmanian Tiger has made news this last month for all the wrong reasons, there’s still another famous species of Tasmanian mammal which deserves just as much attention (probably more given that we can still save this one from extinction). The Tasmanian devil has seen its populations declined considerably over the last three decades, largely due to the emergence of a transmissible facial tumour, the devil facial tumour disease (DFTD).

The way the devils interact mean that even at low densities, the disease can still be transmitted through a population. The aggressive nature of Tasmanian devil mating (which occurs even when there are few devils around) is a big transmission vector. This unfortunately means that extinction due to DFTD was recently thought to be a likely endpoint.

Today’s authors wanted to test to how strongly the devil density influenced the spread of DFTD, and whether the drop in population that the disease causes means that we’re likely to see the disease’s effects wear off at some point, and Tasmanian devil populations stabilise.

What They Did

Long-term data is an absolute must for a study like this. Luckily, the Tasmanian government has run ‘spotlight surveys’ along 172 road transects for the last 25 years. These involve driving slowly along a 10 kilometre stretch of road and recording mammal presence using a handheld spotlight. This was combined with further surveys designed to obtain density at smaller scales to come up with a predictive estimate of devil density in Tasmania from 1985 to 2035.

The team also used occurrence data for DFTD to figure out how quickly it initially spread through Tasmania, and modelled the spread into a new region against the density of the devils in that region.

Did You Know: Devil Reintroduction

The Tasmanian devils are an Australian icon, and a lot of money has been put into figuring out how to save their species. Suggestions have been made to reintroduce DFTD-free population back onto mainland Australia, where their presence may even help reduce the effect of cats and foxes. However it is also possible that the introduction of a new predator could instead put added pressure on mainland species already threatened by invasive predators. Studies into this are ongoing, and you can check out more on them at the articles linked below.

Read More: Releasing the Devil

What They Found

Tasmanian devil density may have played a large role in the initial spread of the disease, explaining why it spread so quickly through certain parts of Tasmania. This isn’t hugely surprising, though the precision with which the authors modelled its spread will be absolutely crucial for effective conservation.

What is really interesting is that the Tasmanian devil population back before the disease struck were probably much lower than initially thought. If this sounds depressing, the other big takeaway is that based on the predictions here, the decline in devil numbers should ease off soon, meaning the disease is unlikely to result in the extinction of Tasmania’s most iconic endemic species.

The study predicts that Tasmanian devil extinction is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean we can relax just yet (Image Credit: Mathias AppelCC0 1.0)

Problems

Normally authors will mention interesting future research which could build on the research they’ve carried out. Standard practice. Here, my ‘problem’ is that the authors mention some research so incredibly tantalising I’m angry at them for bringing it up. What will be important in the future is looking at devil genotypes. The genetic makeup of some devils will make them more resistant to the disease, and identifying and moving these individuals to areas where the disease is rampant could help fight DFTD. Having said that, it could also help produce more aggressive strains of the disease. GIVE ME ANSWERS.

So What?

This is a good news story, which often feel quite scant in the world of ecology. But it doesn’t mean the devil is out of the woods yet. Actually the woods themselves are a massive problem, seeing as Australia’s rates of deforestation are among the worst in the world. We need to constantly monitor the population to figure out where local extinctions are likely.

This study is also a fantastic example of how important long-term monitoring is for ecologists. Studies like the one used here are hard to fund (more on that here), but their value to ecologists in allowing us to figure out what drives population fluctuations is enormous.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who has spent way too much time looking at photos of Tasmanian mammals over the last 2 weeks. 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.

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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