Author Archives: Sam Perrin

Getting The Most Out Of A Jigsaw Ecosystem

Image Credit: Mainaksinghabarma, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped

Increasing cover of natural areas at smaller scales can improve the provision of biodiversity and ecosystem services in agroecological mosaic landscapes (2022) Rosenfield et al., Journal of Environmental Management,

The Crux

While nature documentaries insist on portraying the natural world as entirely separate from human life, the fact is that ‘natural’ areas exist side by side with, and often within a mosaic of, human and semi-human (think agricultural or grazed) ecosystems. These natural ecosystems provide a wide array of services – they hold biodiversity, suck carbon in from the atmosphere, maintain clean water, and even regulate local temperatures.

With a growing global population, maintaining these ecosystems unfortunately isn’t as simple as leaving the natural world alone. Development needs to be planned with these ecosystems in mind, and choosing exactly where to leave them intact is tricky. Scale is a big problem here – does leaving one big patch of forest untouched give the same benefits as leaving many smaller patches dotted throughout a landscape? That’s what today’s researchers were trying to answer.

What They Did

Today’s researchers studied a large region in south-west Ontario, Canada. The region contained a number of different ecosystems, which they broke into natural, agricultural, and urban areas. They selected regions across the different areas to test for different indicators of ecosystem services:

  • Biodiversity – in this case the abundance and species richness of different plant species
  • Carbon storage – in this case measured by the mass of trees above ground throughout the regions
  • Local climate regulation – the ability of an ecosystem to regulate local temperatures
  • Water quality – checking the concentration of different minerals in local water sources

They then compared these to the percentage of these regions which were covered by natural, agricultural, or urban areas.

Did You Know: Cultural Landscapes

Large agricultural clearance often creates fragmented landscapes and damages population which depends on large, connected landscapes. Yet at a small scale, very localised grazing often create small patches that break up the usual landscape and can sometimes increase species richness on a larger scale. It’s a phenomenon that has often led the idea of ‘cultural landscapes’ being deemed necessary for a healthy landscape. Yet often these landscapes are a fairly recent phenomenon, and not really representative of the ‘natural state’ of an ecosystem. Furthermore, they may increase species richness on a small scale, but if they expand too much those effects start to be outweighed by their fragmenting effects.

What They Found

The most notable patterns came with an increase in natural land cover. Where there were higher proportion of natural land, biodiversity increased and local temperature decreased at all spatial scales. Aboveground carbon and water quality also increased with increasing natural land, though only at smaller scales.

Increasing urban land area led to lower biodiversity and higher temperatures across all scales, while the only pronounced effect an increase in agricultural land had was to decrease local temperatures.


Obviously a high level of plant species richness does not necessarily translate to high species richness of other organisms like fungi and animals. Species richness itself can be misleading, as high abundances of one particular species and small abundances of others will give the same value as a more even spread across the region. However, a more intensive survey would have increased the workload tenfold, and I understand why the authors went for plant diversity, which generally can be a good indicator for more comprehensive estimates.

So What

While there are many who argue for the positive influence of agricultural areas on the environment, this study suggests that natural ecosystems are by far the most important contributors to important ecosystem services. The fact that this was even more pronounced on smaller spatial scales means that a mosaic-like spread of natural areas throughout a landscape is beneficial, rather than isolated patches of forest dotted throughout larger areas.

These are important notes for environmental planners, who need to be considering exactly where agricultural areas (and further urban encroachment) should lie in the future. Ecosystems provide us with a host of tangible benefits, and we need to preserve these, not to mention the bevy of species that exist within them.

Dr. Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist who completed his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and will quite happily go for long walks in the forest in order to skip work and say he “got lost”. 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.

It’s the Climate, Stupid

Image Credit: Tristan Schmurr, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

“I’m not going to do it and put our kids’ economic future at risk.”

This is a quote that reverberated around Australia in mid 2019. It was uttered by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, upon being pressed on how serious a stance against climate change he would take if he won the then-upcoming federal election.

It’s a story that sadly plays out worldwide, with many politicians and members of the public opting to prioritise economic growth over the more pressing action required to combat climate change. The emotional twist is usually the same – “climate change is bad, but you still need money”.

Read more

What 18,000 Empty Flights Does To A Climate Optimist

I want to preface this article by saying I’m a believer that individual choices can make a significant difference in the fight to change the outcome of climate change. Up to 72% of greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to household consumption. While a great deal of this could be reduced by local governments and industry offering leaner and cleaner options, I refuse to believe there’s nothing we can do as individuals to reduce our carbon emissions. 

That could include living more sustainably, normalising greener behaviour, or putting pressure on governments and corporations to change their ways. The idea that our personal carbon footprint is meaningless has always struck me as defeatist. It robs us of agency, and only produces depression and apathy.

However, once in a while something comes along that really makes it hard to cling to my determined sense of optimism.

Read more

Testing Invasive Frameworks In The Witcher

Season two of The Witcher hit Netflix late last year, giving us the chance to have a look at some all-new movie creatures (as well as Henry Cavill’s perfect chin). So in light of my love for a) invasion biology and b) top-class television (though I have to confess to sarcasm in this instance), I thought I’d traipse once more through the world of The Witcher and some of the concepts it brings up.

Read more

The Ramifications of Clashes Between Wolves and Bears

Image Credit: Yellowstone National Park, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

Of wolves and bears: Seasonal drivers of interference and exploitation competition between apex predators (2021) Tallian et al., Ecological Monographs,

The Crux

I’ve written a lot about our relationship with top predators like bears and wolves on Ecology for the Masses, but their relationship with each other is also capable of having a big impact on their surroundings. When bears live in the same regions as wolves, predation levels are generally higher, but how much higher really depends on how much competition takes place between the two species.

Competition can take two forms out in the wild: interference competition, in which a bear might drive wolves away from a kill they’ve made, and exploitation competition, in which wolves have to search longer because bears have reduced the number of prey species in their area. Since both bears (through hibernation) and their prey species (through fixed mating cycles) vary in their behaviour throughout the year, could the type of competition that wolves face vary throughout the year as well? That’s what today’s authors wanted to find out.

Read more

The Dog Who Cried Wolf: Promoting Co-Existence With Carnivores Through Livestock Guarding Dogs

Centuries of folklore have made us wary of carnivores. Whether it’s the Big Bad Wolf, the Tsavo Man-Eaters, or the dingo that stole Lindy Chamberlain’s baby, horrifying tales of rare events have made us uneasy about them. Yet as ecologists constantly espouse, they are integral parts of any ecosystem, and the gradual return of wolves to many parts of the northern hemisphere represents a huge boost for biodiversity.

Read more

Of Course Climate Change Is A Threat To Global Ecosystems

Last week, prominent Australian conservation scientist Professor Hugh Possingham caused quite a stir when he stated that “personally [he is] not convinced that climate change is a huge threat to many species”. This naturally sparked heated debates among ecologists the world over, with varying levels of vitriol. As Dr. Charlie Gardner put it, it “is an extraordinary thing to hear from a leading conservation scientist”.

Read more

Can We Figure Out Where Human-Wolf Conflicts Are The Most Likely?

Image Credit: Isster17, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped

Men and wolves: Anthropogenic causes are an important driver of wolf mortality in human-dominated landscapes in Italy (2021) Musto et al., Global Ecology and Conservation,

The Crux

The reintroduction of wolves into many regions in the Northern Hemisphere is massively controversial, and even a constant parliamentary debate in some countries. There are no doubts that wolves bring considerable benefits to local biodiversity wherever they are reintroduced, but there are also no doubts that their reintroduction is met with trepidation by the local human populace.

That makes figuring out where conflicts are likely to arise and wolves and likely to be shot, poisoned, or hit by a car really important. If we can figure out where wolves are most likely to be killed, it can help conservationists figure out where their populations need the most attention, and where outreach to local farmers could prevent further conflicts. That’s what today’s authors wanted to figure out.

Read more

Putting The Science Into Science Fiction: Meeting NY Times Best-Selling Author Scott Sigler

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0, image cropped with book title inserted

Over the last nine months, we’ve been joined on our biology/movie focused podcasts by some amazingly talented biologists to discuss some movies of immensely varying quality. So when my co-host Adam Hasik announced that he’d secured a science fiction writer as a guest, it was a chance to change pace and look at science from a plot perspective, rather than the other way around.

Read more

How Fur Colour Influences The Arctic Fox’s Survival Chances

This is a guest post by Lukas Tietgen

Fur colour in the Arctic fox: genetic architecture and consequences for fitness (2021) Tietgen et al., Proceedings B,

The Crux

Researchers who try to understand the dynamics of wild populations often look at how different traits affect the survival and reproduction of different individuals within those populations. Usually, the investigated traits are visible and easy to observe, like an animal’s size or their colour. However, there may be cases where the important traits are not as conspicuous or even hidden behind more striking features.

The arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) occurs with two distinct fur colours, often called morphs. The two most common are the white morph and the blue morph. Which of these morphs is more common depends on the population. In Norway, the white morph is more common but in recent years an apparent increase in foxes of the blue morph has been observed. Previous research has shown that blue arctic foxes are usually fitter, but until now there hasn’t been a good explanation of why.

We wanted to dive a little bit deeper into the differences between the two colour morphs, explore the genetics behind this trait and seeing whether we could find any “hidden” traits connected to fur colour that could explain the difference in fitness between the two morphs.

Read more
« Older Entries Recent Entries »