Tag Archives: species

Preserving Biological Heritage: The Importance of Type Specimens

Museum collections may seem like they’re just for display, but they often house important biological information (Image Credit: Andrew Moore, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)

Last September, the devastating news of a fire in Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro hit the world. The fire destroyed most of the collection, including about 5 million insect specimens. Many of the samples were holotypes, a subset of type specimens which are particularly valuable to the scientific world. If you want an indication of just how valuable, some researchers even charged back into the building while it was on fire to rescue these specimens, saving about 80 % of the mollusc holotypes.

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Climate Change: Don’t Forget About the Plants!

When we think of global warming, we tend to be a bit selfish and think of how it affects us in our daily lives, but the warming temperatures on our planet have the potential to affect the base of all of our food webs, plants (Image Credit: Matt Lavin, CC BY-SA 2.0).

Phenology in a warming world: differences between native and non-native plant species (2019) Zettlemoyer et al., Ecology Letters, https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/ele.13290

The Crux

The timing of life-history events (such as births, growing seasons, or reproductive period) is called “phenology”, and this aspect of an organism’s life is particularly sensitive to climate change. So much so that changes in the phenology of certain processes are often used as an indicator of climate change and how it affects a given organism.

We’ve talked about the effects of rising temperatures in animals here on Ecology for the Masses, but there is a lot of evidence in the scientific literature for climate change causing a multitude of different changes in the phenology of various plants. Not only does the direction of the change differ (some organisms experience delays in certain events, others have earlier starts), but the size, or magnitude, of the change also differs. The authors of today’s study wanted to examine these changes in the context of an invasive plant species and how it may be able to outcompete a native plant.
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Killing 2 Million Cats: When Broad Targets Aren’t Enough

Image Credit: Joey Doll, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

Conservation or politics? Australia’s target to kill 2 million cats (2019) Doherty et al., Conservation Letters, https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12633

The Crux

We’ve talked a lot lately about competition between causes on Ecology for the Masses. Often when extra attention is given to one cause over another equally valid cause, it’s a product of social trends coinciding at the right time, sudden events capturing the public interest (think the Notre Dame fire) or a particularly effective marketing campaign. But sometimes a cause or a conservation target can be used to deliberately distract the public from another cause, and it’s a potential example of this that we’re looking at today.

Australia has long had an issue with cats. They’ve decimated populations of native species, playing a large hand in the extinction of many species found nowhere else. So it makes sense that part of Australia’s first Threatened Species Strategy would be to minimise the impact of cat populations on local wildlife. The strategy included a target of 2 million cats being killed between 2015 and 2020. Whilst this might sound like a reasonable goal, this paper argues that the actual scientific evidence supporting the target is pretty weak, and goes into some alternatives and motives.

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Biodiverse Gardens: Where Doing Less is More

Kiftsgate Court Garden: The Wild Garden 1. An example of a “wild garden” in the UK, where the plants have been left to grow (Image Credit: Michael Garlick, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped)

How do you make your garden more biodiversity-friendly? During my time at the  Futurum exhibition at The Big Challenge Science Festival, I spent a lot of time talking to people who expressed a desire to be manage their gardens for more plants and animals, but were unsure where to start. So I’ve compiled a brief guide on what to do, and it’s your lucky day – it involves not doing anything.

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Parrots in Norway

The Norwegian landscape is a beautiful thing. Spruce and pine groves piled on the side of mountains and fjords, moose and deer popping up in backyards, woodbirds flitting about on pristine hiking trails. Parrots screeching bloody murder into your ears as you re-enter the city.

No you did not read that wrong. It’s not happening yet, it in a couple of decades parrots, a type of bird not really associated with the sub-Arctic, could be a regular presence around Norwegian cities. So how could this happen, and why is it really quite concerning?

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Tim Robertson: The World of Ecological Data

When I was a child, I’d often study books of Australian birds and mammals, rifling through the pages to see which species lived nearby. My source of information were the maps printed next to photos of the species, distribution maps showing the extent of the species range. These days, many of these species ranges are declining. Or at least, many ecologists believe they are. One of the problems with knowing exactly where species exist or how they are faring is a lack of data. The more data we have, the more precise an idea we get of the future of the species. Some data is difficult to collect, but yet more data has been collected, and is simply inaccessible.

At the Living Norway seminar earlier this month I sat down with Tim Robertson, Head of Informatics and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. GBIF is an international network that works to solve this data problem worldwide, both by making collected data accessible and by helping everyday people to collect scientific data. I spoke with Tim about the journey from a species observation to a species distribution map, the role of GBIF, and the future of data collection.

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The Big Challenge: Increasing City Biodiversity

Image Credit: GuoJunjun, CC BY-SA 3.0 NO, Image Cropped

The Big Challenge Science Festival is currently in Trondheim, bringing a host of celebrities, scientists and futurists together. Their goal is to present solutions for the challenges the planet currently faces, and get people thinking about how they can adjust their lives to help the planet. While there are some big names in attendance, there are also a large number of local students and scientists working tirelessly on stands, and it’s them that I spent yesterday working alongside.

There’s some fantastic stuff on display. I was particularly impressed by the use of VR in a couple of exhibitions. One stand presented a worst case scenario for warming planet, with one of Trondheim’s most famous laneways submerged in water (although the man clinging to a floating car tire waving for assistance may somewhat disturb the kids). Nearby was another VR experience where you could shoot cars, carbon molecules and chimneys, transforming them into bikes, trees and solar panels respectively. The tent next to us had a great range of displays, presenting practical and simple options for living sustainably and also letting you snack on insects and other arthropods!

Our own stand was part of the Futurum exhibition, which postulated how Trondheim may look in 2050. It focussed on biodiversity, and how Trondheim’s wildlife will change over the next 30 years with increasing urbanisation and a warming climate. On loan from the Natural History Museum was a selection of species that could conceivably arrive in Trondheim with a 1-2 degree temperature increase. It was fun to see kids’ faces contort at the thought of a parrot being a common presence in Trondheim, but with Ring-Neck parrots already as far north as Brussels, it could happen within their lifetime.

I was pleasantly surprised at the willingness of some children to accept that new species weren’t necessarily a good thing. Most of them were entranced by the sight of a grey squirrel, but readily understood that it could mean the demise of the red squirrel and some local bird life. Likewise, I was surprised at how many parents could immediately recognise the species likely to disappear from Trondheim, and acknowledge how many more Black-Headed Gulls and Northern Lapwings they could see only twenty years ago.

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NTNU’s Tanja Petersen explains how species life the Pacific Oyster or the Grey Squirrel could be in Trondheim within 30 years (Image Credit, Øystein Kielland, CC BY 2.0)

It was also encouraging to see how many people have started to let portions of their garden grow wild in an effort to allow insects, and thus birds and mammals make their way back into urban areas. The exhibition had 2 fantastic videos compiled by Øystein Kielland focussing on the difference between a green area and a biodiverse one, and how fragmentation has devastated local plant and insect populations. So the number of adults who had already started letting areas around their house grow unchecked was encouraging. Two particular highlights were the couple who eagerly showed us the badger who had recently taken up residence in their backyard, and the girl who nodded eagerly and started telling me all about her insect hotels.

One thing I always struggle with in these situations is communicating uncertainty. Whilst it’s fun to see jaws drop at the thought of parrots in Norway, it’s difficult to communicate the ‘maybe’ factor in the amount of time it takes to engage someone in these issues. The point of the Big Challenge is to get people to act, so I hope that people walk away thinking that if they don’t start living more sustainably there could be huge species’ turnover, but I don’t want to present a worst case scenario, or talk in absolutes about issues that are very much only possibilities. So any success stories you’ve had communicating uncertainty in these scenarios would be very much welcome below!

I’ll be back at the Futurum exhibit at Krigseilerplass near the Royal Garden today. If you’re in Trondheim, I highly recommend stopping by. You can read more about the event here.

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