Category Archives: The Forefront

Through The Lens Of A Biologist: A Wildlife Photographer Shares His Story

Over the last two years, I had the chance to spend over 100 days at sea on board the German research vessel Sonne, transversing the Atlantic and examining all sorts of fascinating deep-sea animals. On these trips, the scientists were joined by someone whose goal it is to bring the science to the people: Solvin Zankl, who has been a professional wildlife photographer for over 20 years.

When the deep-sea nets reach the surface, the biologists start stressing, frantically ensuring the catch is properly documented and preserved. This is when Solvin’s smorgasbord starts, as he calmly looks through the catch and picks out the more interesting specimens, some of which he knows and some of which he has never seen before. Then he slowly maneuvers his small canisters of cold water into the cold room to spend the next hours meticulously portraying each animal.

Since I believe his job is an absolute dream job for many biologists, I asked him a few questions on how he got into this profession and what some of the challenges are.

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On The Trail Of Explosive Seaweed Blooms

You’ve probably heard of the Sargasso Sea – it is well-known for the floating seaweed called Sargassum that provides a habitat for baby sea turtles and many other sea critters. Floating in the Atlantic Ocean just off the east coast of North America, it’s also the region where the European and American eels mate, a process that scientists still don’t fully understand after centuries of research.

For the last 10 years, a phenomenon has occurred in the Atlantic where never-ending masses of Sargassum inundate beaches after uncharacteristically large blooms occurred. The Sargassum originates from the nutrient-poor waters of the North Equatorial Recirculation Region off the west coast of Africa and spreads throughout the Atlantic Ocean and adjacent ocean basins, affecting the Caribbean, states surrounding the Gulf of Mexico, South America and even Africa. Tom Theirlynck  is a marine biologist, currently working on his PhD at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) and University of Amsterdam (IBED-FAME), and he as part of the Amaral-Zettler (NIOZ/UvA) research group is studying the excessive Sargassum blooms in detail. 

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The Tug of War Between Climate Change and Habitat Destruction with Professor Francesca Verones

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

While climate change often dominates news headlines, the fact remains that currently the majority of damage being done to the world’s ecosystems is a product of the way we use land. Major examples of land use change such as deforestation and cattle grazing do have impacts on the world’s climate of course, but they have numerous other very severe and more short-term impacts on the world’s biodiversity, as well as on human health.

Yet despite the fact that most species’ population declines and extinctions come down to the rapid degradation of their habitats, climate change remains the more ubiquitous of the two threats. With that in mind, I spoke to Professor Francesca Verones of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology earlier this year. Francesca’s work involves projecting the impact of human activity on the planet’s biodiversity, and we discussed why communicating the problems with land use change can be a challenge, and why changing our habits is hard, but necessary.

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The Myths Behind Gender in Science with Professor Marlene Zuk

Marlene Zuk, prominent evolutionary biologist and behavioral ecologist, has been trying to encourage more fact-based discussions about gender in the scientific community

This interview was first published in late 2018 on the predecessor to Ecology for the Masses under the title “Marlene Zuk: Gender in Science”. Image Credit: Marlene Zuk, University of Minnesota, CC BY 2.0

Co-authored by Kate Layton-Matthews

As part of a two-day gender equality workshop for the Department of Biology at NTNU, Kate Layton-Matthews and I had the chance to interview Professor Marlene Zuk. Marlene is a prominent evolutionary biologist and behavioral ecologist, and a well-known advocate of improved gender equality in academia.

Her emphasis on bringing about more fact-based discussions on gender and how to attract women to typically male-dominated professions is unfortunately still necessary. People are still maintaining the view that women are ‘naturally less inclined’ to what are considered as ‘masculine’ disciplines, but as Marlene explains, it is impossible to disentangle culture from genetics. Her work is fundamental in the face of such dangerous over-simplification, for instance in the light of the firing of a disgraced professor at Cern, the European nuclear research centre in Geneva, where a male professor commented that ‘Physics was built by men’, which was unsurprisingly met with immediate backlash. In the words of another gender equality-advocate and professor in Physics, Jessica Wade, we need to fight against the ‘toxic and incorrect messages’ that such people are propagating.

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Elephant in the Alps, Hippos in the Highlands: Rewilding Europe with Jens-Christian Svenning

Image Credit: Benh Lieu Song, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped

We tend to think of the concept of large herbivores roaming freely around Europe as a notion confined to the ancient past. Yet in geological terms, huge herbivores and their associated carnivores were widespread on the European continent only a short time ago. With many ecosystems badly degraded, the idea of restoring ecological processes and enhancing biodiversity by reintroducing everything from bisons to elephants has been tossed around more and more.

But how do the reintroduction of these species help European ecosystems? To learn more about the phenomena, I spoke to Professor Jens-Christian Svenning, who has spoken extensively about the advantages of bringing large herbivores and carnivores back to the European mainland. We discussed what rewilding means, some recent success stories, and why living with megafauna in Europe is no harder than in any other part of the world.

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You’re Their Whole World: Studying The Mites On Your Face With Dr. Benjamin Clanner-Engelshofen

Image Credit: AJE Terzi, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped

While many biologists have to spend arduous days in the field, often sweating, getting stuck in mud or bitten by a million mosquitos, Dr. Benjamin Clanner-Engelshofen carries his study species wherever he goes: on his own forehead.

He finished his first PhD in October 2020 and is both a pharmacist and medical doctor, currently practicing at the clinic and polyclinic for dermatology and allergy of the Ludwig Maximilian University Hospital in Munich. His work focuses on the little mites that live on all of us.

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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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