Category Archives: The Forefront

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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Towards Equality in Ecology: BES Edition

Every year, ecological organisations like the British Ecological Society and the Ecological Society of Australia make efforts to create a more inclusive society. Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to attend several annual meetings run by such organisations, and even in such a short space of time, the differences are marked. Name-tags with gender pronouns are starting to become the norm at large ecology conferences, the audience seems to represent a much more diverse community, and conversations and workshops around promoting inclusivity are now commonplace.

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The Changing Face of Ecology: Part Five

Image Credit: rumpleteaser, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

2019 was a year in which many changes that our planet is experiencing came to the fore, capped off in December by the Australian bushfires, a phenomenon that scientists predicted would start to occur with increasing intensity at the beginning of last decade. With all the change that our planet is currently undergoing, it’s always worth noting that the discipline of ecology itself has changed as well.

Over 2019 we got to sit down and talk to some pretty exciting people. And whether they were at the forefront of genomics, the science-policy interface, or the wave of inclusivity currently sweeping ecology, they all had some great comments on how ecology has changed over the last few decades.

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Breaking Down the Social Stigma of Invasive Species with Professor Helen Roy

I sat down with leader of the UK Ladybirds Survey Helen Roy to talk about the stigma surrounding invasive species like this Harlequin Ladybird (Image Credit: PJ Taylor, Pixabay Licence, Image Cropped)

I sat down with leader of the UK Ladybirds Survey Helen Roy to talk about the stigma surrounding invasive species like this Harlequin Ladybird (Image Credit: PJ Taylor, Pixabay Licence, Image Cropped)

While climate change and habitat loss seem to keep making all the headlines when it comes to environmental damage, invasive species are still chugging along comfortably as the second biggest threat to our planet’s biodiversity. New cases are popping up all the time, with the Burmese python, Crucian carp and the emerald ash borer beetle recently reaching new levels of notoriety.

Yet the negative impact that many non-native species have on the habitats they move into have often led to stigmatisation of anything new. This can be counter-productive, as the majority of newcomers into an ecosystem won’t have a pronounced negative effect. And whilst it may seem like a smart piece of preventative management to maintain an ecosystem’s status quo by preventing species introductions, it’s often just not feasible.

With this in mind, I sat down at the recent British Ecological Society’s Annual Meeting with Professor Helen Roy of the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. Helen has studied the impacts of non-native species the world over, from the UK to smaller island nations like St. Helena, and has led several projects for the European Commission on non-native species. We spoke about the importance of distinguishing between invasives and non-natives, the impact of climate change on invasive biology, and the social and cultural significance of both native and non-native species.

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Our Best Ecology Quotes of 2019

I’m generally not one for retrospectives. And in 2019, that feels like an advantage, considering how much of the world caught fire and how many backwards steps were taken regarding environmental policy.

But to take a more positive look back at the last 12 months, we at Ecology for the Masses have gotten to speak to some pretty inspiring people. One of the best aspects of running this website is that we’re able to sit down on a regular basis and talk to some incredibly prominent and interesting ecologists, managers and even politicians and talk everything and anything about the world we live in and the creatures that inhabit it.

So here are my favourite quotes from the interviews we published in 2019. If you want more context, you can of course check out the full interview by clicking on the names.

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Abigail McQuatters-Gollop: How Will Brexit Affect Europe’s Oceans?

Image Credit: Abigail McQuatters-Gollop, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

For the past three and a half years, the UK has been trawled through the political benthic sludge that is Brexit. With a second general election in two years arriving this Thursday, some sort of resolution finally seems to be on the horizon. And while much of the public discourse has focussed on the potential implications for Brexit following the election, climate change and the environment have also featured heavily.

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