Category Archives: The Forefront

Consider the Copepod: Researching the Base of the Food Web (with Dr. Nancy Mercado-Salas)

Image Credit: Andrei Savitsky (left and right), CC BY-SA 4.0 ; Uwe Kils (centre), CC BY-SA 3.0

The deep sea is a wondrous world of biodiversity, darkness, and mysteries we still know very little about. Despite the fact that we rely on the deep sea as a sink for carbon dioxide – and increasingly as a source of natural gases and minerals – we have very little understanding of how our actions will affect its intricate food web.

Near the base of the food web sits an incredibly diverse group of animals called copepods. They are so abundant and have such sweeping variety that we are still struggling to come up with a way to classify them. Dr. Nancy Mercado-Salas has worked with these tiny creatures since her bachelor’s thesis, both in freshwater and in marine ecosystems, and her message is clear: We need to increase our knowledge on this group of animals before it is too late.

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Defining Nemo: A Deep Dive Into Taxonomy (With Kai The Fish Guy)

One of the defining moments of my childhood was a holiday around Australia in the back of a Holden Commodore. My parents drove my sister and me around the whole country, and right in the middle of the holiday we took a trip out to the Great Barrier Reef. Swimming among such a mind-blowing variety of fish species was an unforgettable experience, and one I was able to pass onto my own kid last year. We’d get back into the boat after a swim and stare at an ID card my wife had bought us, trying to figure out which of the cornucopia of dazzlingly-coloured species we had seen.

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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.

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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.

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Rebuilding Our Relationship With Urban Rivers With Dr. Cecilia Medupin

Rivers have played a monumental role in determining where people live. Their importance in providing water, transportation and a raft of other ecosystem services has meant that even today most of the world’s largest cities are situated close to a major source of freshwater, from Sydney to Delhi, Quebec to Karachi.

Yet despite their role in our history, urban rivers today are often facing increasing levels of pollution as a result of human activity. As well as often being a huge tourist drawcard, and an ongoing resource for fishers, joggers and portable BBQ toters, freshwater ecosystems carry a disproportionate number of aquatic species, which makes this trend increasingly worrying.

After meeting at last year’s British Ecological Society Annual Meeting, I got in touch with Dr. Cecilia Medupin, a freshwater ecologist at the University of Manchester. Cecilia works to increase peoples understanding of rivers, including the project Our Rivers, Our City. I asked Cecilia abut our connection with rivers, the challenges they face, and how to inspire research and change in urban rivers.

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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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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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Appreciating the Nature On Our Doorstep With Kelly Brenner

Image Credit: Kelly Brenner, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

Over the last few months, extenuating circumstances have confined us to our homes, and the areas immediately surrounding them. For those who love nature, being trapped in the city or suburbs might seem like we’ve lost our daily opportunity to explore the ecosystems around us. Yet over recent years, the push to appreciate urban ecosystems and the species that flourish in them has grown. The exploration of urban ecosystems makes up the lion’s share of my PhD. With the increasing urbanisation seen worldwide, we are at risk of getting alienated from nature, unless we actively make an effort to stay in touch – the phrase: “You can’t save what you don’t love, and you can’t love what you don’t know” comes to mind. Urban ecosystems can offer the opportunity to reconnect with nature without having to travel far and wide to find a patch of green.

With this in mind, Sam and I recently had the chance to sit down and talk to author Kelly Brenner. Kelly, whose book Nature Obscura chronicles the many fascinating lives of urban species, has been leading the charge for renewed appreciation of the nature that is available right outside our doorstep, or in the backyards of those fortunate enough to have them. We spoke with Kelly about her new book, our attitudes toward urban nature, and even how useful Pokemon Go is in an urban nature context.

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Environmental Responsibility in the Tourism Industry With Professor David Lusseau

Image Credit: Pentapfel, Pixabay licence, Image Cropped

Fascination with nature drives a huge chunk of tourism worldwide. The plains of Africa, the Amazon Rainforest, the Swiss Alps and their associated species are huge economic drivers for their respective countries, and they (ideally) increase people’s appreciation of nature. There are plenty of great examples of ecotourism as a pathway for both education and conservation.

Yet when an industry is driven by money first, nature second, of course there are going to be manifold examples of businesses deprioritising the natural phenomena they are associated with, often to the direct detriment of that phenomena. Think the masses of pollution now found around Mt Everest, or the damage caused by avid snorkellers on the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve had my own experience with tourist companies deliberately spreading misinformation about the reef – more on that at this link.

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Turning Students Into Scientists with Professor Vigdis Vandvik

Ask any two researchers what separates a student from a scientist and you’ll likely get two completely different answers. Often I hear people writing their PhD thesis being referred to (and even referring to themselves) as scientists-to-be, which is surely ridiculous, considering the amount of time they spend creating data and publishing research (NO I’M NOT BITTER). But even below that level, I know plenty of Master’s students who have put together singularly impressive datasets or papers that must qualify them for the seemingly subjective title of scientist.

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