Darwin’s Unrequited Isle (part 1)

A busy week of biodiversity-related activities terminated last Friday in a frantic rush to make sure everything was organised for this week’s field course in Tenerife.  The field course has been running for 10 years and has proven to be both popular with students and productive, generating data for a couple of research papers, with more in the pipeline.

Tenerife is an extraordinary island as Charles Darwin recognised; it’s the place that Darwin really wanted to go to when he embarked on H.M.S. Beagle, though he never made it due to the Beagle having to be quarantined before anyone was allowed onto the island.  The captain decided to sail away and Darwin was devastated.  Hopefully the rest of his trip made up for it, but it’s interesting to speculate whether Darwin’s ideas about evolution may have taken a different path had he been able to visit the Canary Islands, in many ways an Atlantic analogue of the Galapagos……but I’m getting ahead of myself…..this week I hope (time willing) to post some updates about out Tenerifean activities.  But back to last week.

The comments sections below the articles on the Times Higher Education Supplement are frequently mires of vile, obnoxious trolling that would embarrass even Shrek.  However an interesting article by Alice Bell has raised a debate about what exactly it is that scientists (and other academics) should be writing.  Widening science communication should also include giving talks about one’s work to a non-specialist audience.  Which is exactly what I did on Wednesday evening when I spoke to an audience of 65 beekeepers, gardeners and farmers in South Warwickshire.  They were very attentive and asked some insightful questions for about 40 minutes after I’d finished speaking, stopping only when someone mentioned that the tea and biscuits were ready.   All told it was a 90 mile round trip through heavy rain but worth it for such an engaging audience.

Earlier that morning I had been interviewed by BBC Radio Northampton  about a report that has just been released indicating that the “native” [sic] Black Honey Bee variety is more common in the British Isles than previously thought.  Lovely.   Good news for the beekeepers I told them.  Now let’s pay a bit more attention to our 250 REALLY native bees, many of which have declined numbers, and 23 of which have gone extinct since 1800.  Not to mention the butterflies (though there’s recently been some good news as far as they are concerned too) and the hoverflies and other pollinators.

Thursday was Think Tank day for the SEED project and I took part in the biodiversity session, which was ably chaired and coordinated by Gareth.  It went as well as we could have wished and hopefully some concrete partnerships are going to come out of it.  But ultimately it was a talking shop and biodiversity should be about doing and experiencing more than talking.  Which brings us back to Tenerife.

On Monday we took the students up to the Guimar Badlands (Malpais de Guimar) a 40 minute drive north east from where we are staying in San Eugenio.  I like to take students to Guimar on their first day in the field:  the pine and laurel forests that we visit later in the week are physiognomically similar to such forests in Britain.  But the succulent dominated xerophytic scrub of Guimar is utterly unlike anything that most of them have experienced previously.  The field work we do at this site is always related to plant community structure, trying to understand how the biodiversity of the primary producers is “organised”.  There’s lots of different ways to measure community “organisation” in an ecological sense, of course, and this year we are looking at how the plant community changes along a gradient from the strand line limit of the vegetation, inland and away from the salty influence of the sea.  It’s an exercise I’ve wanted to do for a while because it’s always been clear that the plants DO change; we’re just never put numbers on it.  So we ran out four 120 metre transects and identified all of the plants that they intercepted at 5m intervals.  Lots of student frustration as they used a combination of identification keys, hints from me and guesswork to put a name to these unfamiliar species.  But by the peak of the day’s heat in the mid afternoon we had a data set and several sunburned students  [no matter how often you mention the word “sun block” there will always be some who think they don’t need it].

Back at our apartment complex there was time for a rest/shower/power nap, depending on your preference, before we reconvened to enter the data into spreadsheets and start generating some graphs.  And these preliminary data look really good, showing how the salt tolerant halophytes are replaced by the various euphorbias and other species that dominate the rest of the Badlands within about 40m of the lower limit of the vegetation, with other species even less salt tolerant and only making a show after about 90m.  This is biodiversity doing interesting things………

Tuesday was a trip up through the pine forest zone to Las Canadas at the foot of Mt Teide.  A long day through some spectacular scenery, interspersed with collecting data on bird behaviour at a picnic site and checking some populations of an endemic plant the Canary Wallflower (Erysimum scoparium).  Interestingly the populations to the south of Las Canadas have more or less failed to flower this year, probably because of the very dry winter on Tenerife.  Many other species have also not flowered and there are some implications for the pollination biology of this plant which I’m hoping we can quantify later in the week.   Will report back when I get a chance………..over and out for now.

8 thoughts on “Darwin’s Unrequited Isle (part 1)

  1. Pingback: Darwin’s Unrequited Isle (part 2) | Jeff Ollerton

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  4. Pingback: Fire and rain (Darwin’s Unrequited Isle part 4) | Jeff Ollerton

  5. Pingback: Student field trip to Summer Leys Nature Reserve – birds, bins and biting winds! | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

  6. Pingback: Spiral Sunday #32 – from the Guimar Badlands of Darwin’s Unrequited Isle | Jeff Ollerton's Biodiversity Blog

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