Category Archives: University of Northampton

Invasive Species Week 2021: Invasive Alien Species of Herpetofauna in the UK

This is a guest post by Helen Tedds who is currently researching for a PhD at the University of Northampton. Although Helen’s work is far removed from my usual research and consultancy interests of plant-pollinator interactions, I’m proud to be part of her supervisory team! Amphibians were one of my early natural history obsessions, and invasive plants and pollinators are a long standing interest of mine. In this post Helen discusses her research on the UK reptile and amphibian pet trade.


This week (24th-30th May 2021) is Invasive Species Week, an annual event led by the GB NNSS (Non-Native Species Secretariat) to raise awareness of invasive species and how we can help prevent their spread. Generally, the term ‘invasive species’ is defined as an introduced organism that has an adverse impact on its environment by causing ecological and economic damage. They are one of the top five causes of worldwide biodiversity loss through habitat damage, preying on or out-competing other species. They can also spread disease to other species, including humans. The estimated cost of invasive species to the UK’s economy is more than £1.7 billion [1] which is caused by things like damage to buildings [e.g. from the dreaded Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica – fig. 1)], interference with food production, delays on work projects, and the expense of dealing with them. The number of new species being introduced to the UK is rapidly on the increase and can be exacerbated by climate change. This is an urgent problem that without intervention will continue to escalate!

Fig. 1: Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) damaging a brick wall

In 2015 I embarked on a PhD that aimed to quantify the pet herpetofauna (reptile and amphibian) trade across England, mainly to understand the associated socio-economic factors and animal welfare consequences of this. Investigating invasive species was low on my already-full agenda, however, it has been a rabbit hole I ended up going down (pun intended: rabbits were named Britain’s most costly invasive species in 2010 according to The Guardian[2])!  

The exotic pet trade has long been known to be a means of new species entering an environment (either through escape or deliberate release), but according to a recent study in Frontiers of Ecology it now ranks as a primary cause of invasive species[3]. It has long been illegal to release any non-native species into the wild under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, however more recent legislation has been enacted to prohibit the trade of invasive species. Whilst the term ‘invasive’ can be subjective, in the UK a species officially considered to be invasive is listed in retained EU law: Invasive non-native (alien) animal species: rules in England and Wales. That’s not to say that other ‘feral’ pets are not ‘invasive’. There are concerns that Indian ring-necked parakeets (Psittacula krameria – fig. 2) that have spread across the UK are potentially out-competing some of our native birds for nesting sites in tree hollows[4]. However there needs to be a body of evidence built to support these claims before a species is added to the legislation.

Fig. 2: Indian ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameria)

In terms of herpetofauna, there is only one invasive species of amphibian listed in the legislation, the North American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus- fig. 3), and one species of reptile, the common slider turtle (Trachemys scripta) along with all sub-species, including T. s. elegans, T. s. scripta, and T. s. troostii -fig. 4-6)[5]. North American bullfrogs pose a threat to our already vulnerable native amphibians as they will eat frogs, newts, and other similar sized animals[6], and slider turtles threaten our waterfowl as they will eat bird eggs, as well as insect larvae[7].

The law has prohibited anyone from keeping, breeding, and selling these species since August 2016. If you owned one before the law came into force (turtles can be very long-lived) then you have what are called ‘grandfather rights’ where the animal can remain in your possession until the end of its days. If an owner can no longer take care of the turtle they cannot re-sell it- it is best to relinquish them to a rehoming centre that has the relevant license where they can live out the rest of their lives[8], such as The National Turtle Sanctuary at Lincolnshire Wildlife Park[9].

Part of my research into quantifying the herpetofauna trade has involved sampling from pet shops and online classified adverts as to what species are for sale. So far, I have officially documented 431 different reptile species, and 122 different amphibian species[10], and this number is set to grow as I continue to analyse four years’ worth of data. All these species are non-native, and whilst most of them would not survive in our British climate, there are some causes for concern.

In October 2020 a fellow PhD student, Ali North, got in touch with me as she is currently investigating the drivers of establishment and spread of a non-native amphibian in the UK, the alpine newt (Ichthyosaura alpestris- fig. 7). Her project uses distribution data of alpine newts in their native range across mid-Europe with an aim to predict the invasion risk of this species in the UK[11]. I was interested to learn from her that these newts have established various populations in the UK but most concerningly are known to be a vector of chytridiomycosis which can be transmitted to our native amphibians[12]. As part of her research at the University of Plymouth, ZSL Institute of Zoology, and the ARC Trust, Ali wanted to know how often alpine newts had occurred in my data sampling seeing as the pet trade is a potential route for non-native species entering the wild. It turns out that my data set had only 16 records of alpine newts (out of tens of thousands of records) which is not very many, however, do not be fooled by small numbers! It does not take many individual pets being released into the wild for a potentially invasive species to wreak havoc on an ecosystem. Whilst the understanding of alpine newts as an invader is in its infancy, I was delighted to be able to assist Ali with this part of her research and I look forward to reading her final thesis. If you have spotted an alpine newt in the UK you can also help towards her project by reporting it here: https://www.arc-trust.org/news/have-you-seen-an-alpine-newt-in-the-uk 

Another interesting thing that my data collection has highlighted is that despite slider turtles being banned from sale for over four years now, they are still appearing on online classified websites such as Preloved, Pets4Homes, and Gumtree. Not only is this illegal, but it is also against the minimum standards set out by the Pet Advertising Advisory Group (PAAG) which these websites agree to adhere to as voluntary members[13]. Since I started collecting data in July 2017 to the time of publishing this blog there have been at least 102 adverts selling slider turtles, and these were the more obvious ones. On deeper investigation some adverts selling yellow-bellied sliders listed them as just the letters ‘YBS’ meaning that they would not be flagged when searching using key words. These adverts have consistently appeared in my data set at a rate of about two per month, with a noticeable spike in Oct-Dec 2020 at a rate of five per month, so there does not appear to be a downward trend since the legislation came into force. Also, some other adverts just listed animals using the word ‘turtle’ or ‘terrapin’; not only does this allow the potential for slider adverts to slip through the net but it also further violates PAAG minimum standards by not advising potential buyers what the species is. How can someone research the correct care information if they don’t know what species they are buying?

Another invasive species that I came into close contact with recently, coincidentally whilst in the process of writing this blog, was in my local park- Elmdon Park in Solihull. An invasive water weed, Azolla filiculoides, or red water fern (fig. 8), had suddenly appeared in one of the park’s ponds. This weed is believed to have entered UK water systems from the ornamental pond and aquarium trade either by spreading via birds’ legs between ponds or from people emptying fish tanks into wild water bodies. It spreads on the surface of water bodies, blocking out sunlight and decreasing oxygen, thereby killing native wildlife[14].

Fig. 8: Red water fern (Azolla filiculoides) in Elmdon Park, Solihull

I sit as Secretary on Elmdon Park Support Group’s[15] committee and run their social media pages, so I found myself reading more about this weed and treatments used to control it, in order to inform the local community on what would happen. The Warwickshire Wildlife Trust lease the land and therefore must foot the treatment bill, which turns out to be the use of a weevil (Stenopelmus rufinasus- fig. 9), affectionately known as ‘Weevil Knievel’ The weevil eats the weed but doesn’t come cheap at a cost of a few hundred pounds for just one container of them[16]. So here we have another casualty to our native wildlife because of the pet trade.

Fig 9: ‘Weevil Knievel’ (Stenopelmus rufinasus)

So, what can we do? Further research into identifying potentially invasive species will help in raising public awareness, whilst initiatives such as Invasive Species Week will spread the message on the consequences of releasing non-native species into our UK ecosystems. But there persists a deeper problem whereby some people fail to properly research the needs of the pets they buy, or fully understand how big they will grow, and feel that it’s easier to release them into the wild rather than to relinquish them via more responsible methods. This is perhaps the area of human-animal interactions that needs more attention and research.

References

  1. NNSS (2021) What are invasive species and why are they a problem? (online) Available from: http://www.nonnativespecies.org/index.cfm?pageid=640 (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  2. The Guardian (2010) Rabbits named Britain’s most costly invasive species (online) Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2010/dec/15/rabbits-invasive-species-cost#:~:text=They%20were%20introduced%20to%20Britain,infrastructure%2C%20a%20report%20says%20today. (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  3. National Geographic (2019) Why you should never release exotic pets into the wild (online) Available from: https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/animals/2019/07/why-you-should-never-release-exotic-pets-the-wild (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  4. RSPB (ND) Ring-necked parakeets in the UK (online) Available from https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/policy-insight/species/invasive-non-native-species/ring-necked-parakeets/ (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  5. GOV.UK (2020) Invasive non-native (alien) animal species: rules in England and Wales (online) Available from: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/invasive-non-native-alien-animal-species-rules-in-england-and-wales#leaving-the-eu (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  6. Froglife (2021) American Bullfrogs (online) Available from https://www.froglife.org/info-advice/amphibians-and-reptiles/american-bull-frog/#:~:text=The%20North%20American%20Bullfrog%20is,other%20animals%20of%20similar%20size. (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  7. Canal and River Trust (2020) Terrapins (online) Available from: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-wildlife/the-rogues-gallery-of-invasive-species/terrapins (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  8. GOV.UK (2020) Invasive non-native (alien) animal species: rules in England and Wales (online) Available from: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/invasive-non-native-alien-animal-species-rules-in-england-and-wales#:~:text=You%20cannot%20legally%20keep%20these,these%20animals%20into%20the%20wild. (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  9. Lincolnshire Wildlife Park (ND) The National Turtle Sanctuary (online) Available from: http://www.lincswildlife.com/national-turtle-sanctuary/ (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  10. Tedds, H.L., Sneddon, S., Ollerton, J., Clubb, R., and McCormick, W.D., Herps across England: investigating the scale of the reptile and amphibian trade: UFAW Recent Advances in Animal Welfare Science VII Conference Poster, 30th June- 1st July 2020, online.
  11. ARC (ND) Have you seen an alpine newt in the UK? (online) Available from: https://www.arc-trust.org/news/have-you-seen-an-alpine-newt-in-the-uk (Accessed 13th May 2021)
  12. Inside Ecology (2018) Invasive non-native species (UK) – Alpine newt (online) Available from: https://insideecology.com/2018/01/04/invasive-non-native-species-uk-alpine-newt/#:~:text=The%20Alpine%20newt%20is%20known,accidentally%20be%20spread%20between%20waterbodies. (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  13. Pet Advertising Advisory Group (2018) Selling a pet (online) Available from: https://paag.org.uk/selling-a-pet/ (Accessed 6th May 2021).
  14. RHS (2021) Aquatic Weeds (online) Available from: https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=429 (Accessed 13th May 2021).
  15. Elmdon Park Support Group (ND) About us (online) Available from: https://www.elmdonpark.org.uk/ (Accessed 13th May 2021).
  16. Birmingham Live (2021) Thousands of weevils to be realised in Solihull’s red lagoon (online) Available from: https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/thousands-weevils-released-solihulls-red-20580339 (Accessed 13th May 2021).

Figures

  1. Japanese knotweed https://environetuk.com/Blog/Does-Japanese-knotweed-cause-property-damage
  2. Female Ring-necked parakeet https://metro.co.uk/2021/01/01/parakeets-could-be-culled-by-government-after-rapid-rise-in-population-13834746/
  3. North American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/aquatic/fish-and-other-vertebrates/bullfrog
  4. Red-eared slider turtle (Trachemys scripta elegans) https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-wildlife/the-rogues-gallery-of-invasive-species/terrapins
  5. Yellow-bellied slider turtle (Trachemys scripta scripta) https://www.petguide.com/breeds/turtle/yellow-bellied-slider/
  6. Cumberland slider turtle (Trachemys scripta troostii) https://www.virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com/reptiles/turtles/cumberland-slider/cumberland_slider.php
  7. Alpine newt (Ichthyosaura alpestris) https://insideecology.com/2018/01/04/invasive-non-native-species-uk-alpine-newt/#:~:text=The%20Alpine%20newt%20is%20known,accidentally%20be%20spread%20between%20waterbodies.
  8. Red water fern (Azolla filiculoides) in Elmdon Park, Solihull https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/warning-hidden-solihull-pool-turns-20484665
  9. ‘Weevil Knievel’ (Stenopelmus rufinasus) https://insideecology.com/2017/11/01/invasive-non-native-species-uk-water-fern/

Pollinators are allies in the fight against climate change: a new commentary just published in New Scientist

Over the past few months I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between the “Climate Emergency” (CE) and the “Ecological Emergency” (EE), and how they overlap considerably in terms of causes and solutions, but that the priorities of the CE often trump those of the EE. One of the outcomes of this has been a commentary that’s been published in New Scientist this week. It’s free to access – here’s the link:

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24933260-100-pollinators-are-our-secret-weapon-in-the-fight-against-global-warming/

It’s extracted from a much longer article that discusses the role of pollinators in relation to climate change. Hopefully that will be published in the not too distant future.

The other thing that’s happened this week is that, in my role as Visiting Professor of Biodiversity at the University of Northampton, I was asked to take part in a webinar that’s one of a series being produced in support of the Levelling Up Goals. The LUGs, modelled on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have cross-party support in Parliament and aim to bring economic prosperity to those parts of the country that have lagged behind in recent decades. The “Green Economy” is seen as central to this.

The webinar was recorded and you can view it here: https://www.fit-for-purpose.org/engage/how-to-level-up-harness-the-energy-transition

It was interesting and I learned quite a bit, for example about how the government is investing the state pension pot in sustainable energy projects. The format of the webinar, however, with the chair asking individuals a question and each of us responding, was a little frustrating as there was no real opportunity to counter statements being made, particularly by the MP for Hexham.

Yesterday Karin and I had out first COVID-19 vaccination; today we both feel a little under the weather, but it will pass. It’s certainly better than the alternative!

SCAPE 2020 by the numbers

Last Friday to Sunday I hosted the annual Scandinavian Association for Pollination Ecology (SCAPE) conference virtually. This is my first opportunity to report back as I took some time off and then tried to catch up with other tasks.

Running any scientific conference is hard work, and virtual ones are no exception! On Monday I was exhausted after a marathon long weekend of three 10-hour days in front of a computer chairing sessions, queuing up speakers and their talks, and generally making sure things ran as smoothly as possible. Of course before that there were literally weeks of preparation, and since then I have been doing follow up work of responding to emails, sending out certificates and receipts, etc.

It’s been quite a job and I couldn’t have done it with the help of my wife Karin (especially for the loan of her office space in the garden) and also Yannick Klomberg who was working on the website, dealing with the posters, etc., all on top of having a week old baby and his partner to look after! In addition I’m grateful to Paul Egan who ran the SCAPE Twitter account, and the session Chairs, keynote speakers, and participants who contributed to a really amazing conference. Our technical support crew from the University of Northampton were great too.

It was the largest SCAPE meeting so far held, no doubt because it was the first to be carried out virtually, with 352 participants from 41 countries listening to and chatting about 92 talks and viewing 39 posters. We also ran several well-attended evening discussion and poster sessions.

Long-standing SCAPEr Marcos Mendez kept a log of the number of participants in each of the sessions and I’ve graphed the data below, showing the broad themes of each group of sessions:

It’s pleasing to see that attendance was reasonably consistent over the course of the long weekend and that there was interest across the full spectrum of themes. The one downward blip was in session 5, which I can only surmise was due to it being the final session on Friday between 17:25 and 18:25.

As is traditional at SCAPE we announced the host of next year’s meeting at the very end. I’m delighted to announce that SCAPE 2021, the 35th annual meeting, will be held for the first time in Poland, where Marcin Zych will be the host. “Wider Scandinavia” just got wider….

A change of career and development of this website

Yesterday was my last day of employment at the University of Northampton, I have stepped down from my professorship to work independently. However I will be staying in touch as a Visiting Professor to complete some projects, supervise my remaining postgraduate researchers, and tidy up the last bits of our REF submission.

It’s been quite a journey over the last 25 years from Nene College > University College Northampton > University of Northampton. I’m proud to have played a part in its development and to have taught some great students along the way. I’ve also made some amazing friends and worked with incredible, talented colleagues. I will miss all of that, but it was time to move on.

So, what of the future? From today I am self-employed as a consultant scientist and writer, focusing on the conservation of pollinators and their plants in our rapidly changing world. No amount of pandemics, Brexits, and American elections can hide the fact that we are having a devastating effect on the nature we rely on to put food on our plates and air in our lungs. The rest of my career is going to be focused on working with individuals and organisations to help to reduce our impact and restore nature.

My philosophy for this is to use the science that I have spent more than 30 years researching and developing, and apply it to the conservation of pollinators and their interactions with plants. At the same time I will continue to take a pragmatic and down to earth approach to thinking about the science that I publish from the perspective of the knowledge and understanding that conservation professionals require to do their work. Some of this is detailed in my book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society (which I hope will be in the shops before Christmas!) but by no means all of it.

Over the next couple of weeks the format of this website will change as I develop it to become more of a shop window for the work I do and the services that I offer. Watch this space!

Biodiversity, plant-pollinator interactions, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

In the past couple of weeks I’ve delivered two presentations at virtual conferences. The first was at a Global Sustainability Summit run by Amity University, one of our partner institutions in India. The second was at the University of Northampton’s own internal research conference. Both of these focused on pollinators, as you might imagine, but they also referred to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 SDGs are being increasingly used as a framework for promoting the importance of biodiversity to human societies across the globe, and I’m seeing them referred to more and more often in studies and reports about pollinator conservation. That’s great, and I’m all in favour of the SDGs being promoted in this way. However I wanted to highlight a couple of aspects of the SDGs that I think are missing from recent discussions.

The first is that pollinators, and their interactions with plants, are often seen as contributing mainly to those SDGs that are directly related to agriculture and biodiversity. Here’s an example. Last week the European Commission’s Science for Environment Policy released a “Future Brief” report entitled: “Pollinators: importance for nature and human well-being, drivers of decline and the need for monitoring“. It’s a really interesting summary of current threats to pollinator populations, how we can monitor them, and why it’s important. I recommend you follow that link and take a look. However, in the section about relevant, global-level policies, the report highlights “the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – especially regarding food security (‘zero hunger’) and biodiversity (‘life on land’).

I think this is under-selling pollinators and pollination, and here’s why. First of all, as we pointed out in our 2011 paper “How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals?”, approaching 90% of terrestrial plants use insects and vertebrates as agents of their reproduction and hence their long-term survival. As we showed in that paper, and a follow up entitled “The macroecology of animal versus wind pollination: ecological factors are more important than historical climate stability“, the proportion of animal-pollinated plants in a community varies predictably with latitude, typically from 40 to 50 % in temperate areas up to 90 to 100% in tropical habitats. Now, flowering plants dominate most terrestrial habitats and form the basis of most terrestrial food chains. So the long-term viability and sustainability of much the Earth’s biodiversity can be linked back, directly or indirectly, to pollinators. That’s even true of coastal marine biomes, which receive a significant input of energy and nutrients from terrestrial habitats.

Biodiversity itself underpins, or directly or indirectly links to, most of the 17 SDGS; those that don’t have an obvious link have been faded out in this graphic:

The underpinning role of biodiversity, and in particular plant-pollinator interactions, on the SDGs needs to be stated more often and with greater emphasis than it is currently.

The second way in which I think that some writers and researchers in this area have misconstrued the SDGs is that they seem to think that it only applies to “developing” countries. But that’s certainly not the way that the UN intended them. ALL countries, everywhere, are (or should be) “developing” and trying to become more sustainable. To quote the UN’s SDG website:

“the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)….are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.”

and

“the SDGs are a call for action by all countries – poor, rich and middle-income – to promote prosperity while protecting the environment.”

I interpret this as meaning that “developed” countries need to consider their own future development, not that they only have to give a helping hand to “developing” countries (though that’s important too). Just to drive this home, here’s a recent case study by Elizabeth Nicholls, Dave Goulson and others that uses Brighton and Hove to show how small-scale urban food production can contribute to the SDGs. I like this because it goes beyond just considering the agricultural and food-related SDGs, and also because by any measure, Brighton and Hove is a fairly affluent part of England.

I’m going to be talking about all of this and discussing it with the audience during an online Cafe Scientifique on Thursday 25th June – details are here. I’m also going to be exploring more of these ideas in my forthcoming book Pollinators & Pollination: Nature and Society, which is due for publication later this year. The manuscript is submitted and is about to be copy-edited. The PowerPoint slide which heads this post uses a graphic from that book that sums up how I feel about biodiversity, plant-pollinator interactions, and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Digital resources for teaching biodiversity online: some ideas to steal

Andrena bicolor

As I mentioned in an earlier post this week, the University of Northampton is stopping all face-to-face teaching from Friday.  Other UK universities have already done that, more will surely follow.  Luckily we are close to the end of term and I only have a few teaching session left to deliver for my Biodiversity & Conservation class.  For one of these I’ve dusted off an old “virtual seminar” that I put together a few years ago when I had to miss another class (I think I was ill).  If anyone is in need of a teaching resource like this, you are most welcome to steal it.  It’s infinitely adaptable.  The range of digital resources can be changed to reflect different countries and languages.  Also, I’ve deliberately kept it broad in scope, but you could tailor it in multiple ways.

It could also be integrated into the two other taxonomy and biodiversity teaching sessions I’ve discussed in the past:

The Taxonomy of Gastronomy – https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2016/11/17/engaging-students-with-the-fundamentals-of-biodiversity-1-the-taxonomy-of-gastronomy/

An Assessed Plant Taxonomy Questionnaire – https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2016/11/22/engaging-students-with-the-fundamentals-of-biodiversity-2-an-assessed-plant-taxonomy-questionnaire/

Again, feel free to steal these if they are useful

 

Here’s the text I send to students:

 

Digital resources for biodiversity: a virtual seminar

One of the great advances in understanding how biodiversity is distributed in time and space, and how it is changing, is the huge amount of digital resources (both raw data and data visualisation) that are available via the internet at no cost.  In this virtual seminar you will explore just a fraction of these resources; bear in mind that many more are available.

First of all, read this blog post about the definition of “biodiversity” and what it really means:

https://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2016/01/22/tight-but-loose-just-what-is-biodiversity/

[Note: if that post isn’t suitable, you could point them to another definition, e.g. the Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiversity.]

Next, take a look at each of the digital resources for biodiversity listed below.  Spend some time exploring each website and the information that is available.  As you are doing so, consider this: do these digital resources provide data and information that corresponds with all aspects of biodiversity, as defined in that blog post and by your own understanding of the term?  If not, what’s missing, what else is required?  Do a web search and see if you can find resources to fill any gaps yourself.  [Note: at this point you could ask more specific questions about these resources and their usefulness for particular tasks or objectives, or set up a chat room in a VLE or similar to discuss issues raised].

Digital resources:

Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF)

https://www.gbif.org/

 

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Data Explorer

http://geodata.grid.unep.ch/

 

Interaction Web Database

https://www.nceas.ucsb.edu/interactionweb/

 

Kew Herbarium

http://apps.kew.org/herbcat/gotoHomePage.do

 

National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Atlas

https://nbnatlas.org/

 

Database of Insects and their Food Plants

http://www.brc.ac.uk/dbif/

 

Natural History Museum Data Portal

data.nhm.ac.uk/

 

British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Garden Birdwatch

https://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/gbw/results

 

British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Bird Trends

https://www.bto.org/about-birds/birdtrends/2019

 

Global Biotic Interactions (GloBI)

https://www.globalbioticinteractions.org/about.html

 

Global Invasive Species Database

http://www.iucngisd.org/gisd/

 

 

Ecologists in a time of COVID-19

20200311_140421

Yesterday I was involved in what’s likely to be be my last face-to-face teaching and meetings from some weeks, possibly months.  In the morning my colleague Duncan McCollin and I watched our final year students take part in an assessed debate that pitted two sides against one another to argue whether or not Brexit will have a negative effect on biodiversity.  The students did very well, they had a great grasp of the issues and the facts and figures.  The end result was very much a draw:

2020-03-16 10.35.33

Teaching at the University of Northampton will go online from the end of the week and a field trip for our first year undergraduates that we had planned for this Thursday has been pulled.  Our annual Tenerife Field Course has also been cancelled: this will be the first year since 2003 that I have not visited the island and it’s going to leave a hole in my long-term data sets.  Perhaps the universe is telling me that it’s time to write them up for publication?

Last week I did a quick vox pop on Twitter to ask how COVID-19 has affected ecology field work at other universities:

The response was interesting and it’s clear that overseas field courses have been massively impacted.  Following the UK Government’s advice yesterday about limiting social contact it seems that local field work for student groups will also be affected.  Hopefully those undertaking individual field work, especially PhD and postdoctoral researchers, will still be able to carry out their data collection.  Do let me know in the comments if it’s affecting your work.

There were also some Twitter responses from professional ecological consultants pointing out that they may not be able to carry out surveys of sites for planning and development purposes.  This is yet another way in which COVID-19 is going to impact our economy.

Following the student debate, Duncan and I headed out to catch up with a meeting of the steering group of the Chequered Skipper Reintroduction Project   We missed the morning’s presentations but arrived in time for the lunch and a short field trip:

2020-03-16 14.25.51

The location of the reintroduction is still being kept secret, as is a second site where a further reintroduction of butterflies from the Belgium population is being considered.  However there was much discussion as to whether restrictions on travel means that this would have to be delayed until next year.

On the way to that site, during a 15 minute drive, we spotted seven red kites.  They are now so common that seeing these amazing birds hardly requires comment.  But we should never forget what an incredibly successful conservation story this has been.  To cap it all, when we arrived at the site I had the pleasure of meeting Karl Ivens, one of the main drivers behind the reintroduction of red kites to Northamptonshire. He now estimates the regional population to be a couple of thousand birds.  The guy deserves a statue, or at least a blue plaque on his house!

On the way home I was thinking about my next blog post and what to write, and whether or not to bring the pandemic into it.  There’s a lot of information, and misinformation, about COVID-19 online and I’m not qualified to add to that: I’m not an epidemiologist.  However I’d like to link to a few things I think are worth reading.

Over at the Dynamic Ecology blog, Brian McGill has posted an open thread on ecologists discussing the coronavirus pandemic.  There are some interesting contributions in the comments, particularly around the response of the UK Government to the crisis.  I was struck by Jeremy Fox’s comment that Britain has some brilliant epidemiological modelers and that “even if you don’t think much of Boris Johnson or his senior advisers, the modelers who are feeding them information and advice are intellectually honest, hardworking, care deeply about protecting the public, and are as good at their jobs as anybody in the world.”  As I pointed out in a reply, this is undoubtedly true, but a lot depends on whether the government is willing to implement that advice. And its track record so far is not inspiring: for years it ignored expert advice on the effects of badger culling on the spread of bovine TB and continued to kill badgers. It’s only just reversed that decision.  Let’s hope that they have learned from that experience.

I am also hoping that there will be at least one positive outcome from the current pandemic on top of recent extreme weather patterns linked to climate change (for example the drought and fires in Australia that I blogged about in January).  I hope that it serves to  remind the public, governments and large corporations just how dependent on the environment our society is.  Despite our advanced technologies, we are incredibly sensitive to disruptions in the natural world.  As this old piece from the New York Times points out: “most epidemics — AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS, Lyme disease and hundreds more that have occurred over the last several decades — don’t just happen. They are a result of things people do to nature“.   That was in 2012, long before COVID-19 was discovered.  To update this, check out the Wildlife Conservation Society’s ongoing series of articles about the relationship between our destruction of natural habitats, the trade in illegally (and legally) hunted animals, and emerging diseases such as COVID-19.

I realise that I’m fortunate and that there’s a lot that I can do by working from home.  For the next few weeks I’ll be doing just that, supporting students online, completing grant and manuscript reviews, having Zoom/Skype meetings, and completing the book that I am writing.  Stay safe everyone.

Just published: Interactions between birds and flowers of Rhododendron spp., and their implications for mountain communities in Nepal – download it for free

Figure 3

Back in April I posted a series of reports on a student field trip that I was involved with in Nepal, supporting our University of Northampton partner college NAMI in Kathmandu; the first one is here.  During that trip, my NAMI colleagues and I made some interesting observations about the role of generalist passerine birds and specialist flower-feeding sunbirds as pollinators of rhododendrons in the Himalayas.  This was subsequently followed up with another set of observations in which I didn’t take part, and then written up as a short research note.  I’m pleased to say that it has now been published in the new, open-access journal Plants, People, Planet.  Here’s a link to the paper which you can download for free:

Ollerton J., Koju N.P., Maharjan S.R. & Bashyal B. (2019) Interactions between birds and flowers of Rhododendron spp., and their implications for mountain communities in Nepal. Plants, People, Planet 00:1–6. https ://doi.org/10.1002/ppp3.10091

The report really asks more questions than it answers.  It points out how important these rhododendron forests are for the people of Nepal but that we know virtually nothing about the pollination biology of the dominant trees and therefore the long-term persistence of Rhododendron species in the face of forest exploitation and climate change.  Our hope is that it stimulates both further research on the topic and increased awareness of how important it is to protect these habitats.

Bound for the Great Southern Land

cropped-tenerife-2008-080

Great Southern Land, in the sleeping sun
You walk alone with the ghost of time
They burned you black, black against the ground
And they make it work with rocks and sand

Great Southern Land by Icehouse

Today Karin and I are packing before heading to the airport for a flight tomorrow to Australia.  It will be Karin’s first trip to the Great Southern Land, and my second: I spent part of 1993 and 1994 there on a short postdoctoral research project.

We’ll be there for about two months. Karin will be writing (she’s working on a book and will be contributing further articles to Medium and other outlets).  I’ll be working with Angela Moles and Stephen Bonser at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) on an Australian Research Council-funded project looking at whether species interactions affect the invasibility of plants native to Europe that are running wild in Australia. So it’s test of the “enemy release hypothesis” (leaving behind the herbivores and parasites) but with the addition of a “making new friends” hypothesis, i.e. gaining pollinators and other mutualists. That grant, plus a Visiting Fellowship to UNSW, is funding the trip.

In a post back in May I mentioned the Australian PhD researcher, Zoe Xirocostas, who is also working on this project.  Zoe surveyed plant populations in the UK, Spain, France, Austria and Estonia over the summer. She is now back and in the middle of surveying in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania.

As well as that project I want to spend time finalising my forthcoming book, collecting some data on Apocynaceae pollination ecology (of course!) and do some community-level surveys of wind/animal pollination to add to a global data set I am compiling.  Karin and I are also running a workshop at UNSW on “Writing for non-academic audiences” and I’m also giving a research seminar there and at Western Sydney University.  In addition we are visiting friends and family over Christmas and the New Year.  We’re packing a lot into a trip of two months!  And of course work at the University of Northampton never goes away – I have project students and PhD researchers to advise and there’ll be the usual weekly blizzard of emails to clear…

Having not been back to Australia since 1994 it will be interesting to see how it’s changed – a lot drier and smokier I imagine…  I’ll be updating the blog as the work progresses; over and out until we land in Sydney.

Two bee species new to science named in honour of pollination ecologists

New Eucera species

Last week the Israeli bee taxonomist Achik Dorchin published a new paper entitled “Taxonomic revision of the aequata-group of the subgenus Eucera s. str (Hymenoptera, Apidae, Eucerini)” .  The paper focuses on a little-known group of “longhorn” bees from the Eastern Mediterranean region, a part of the world with an extraordinarily high bee diversity.  In this taxonomic account, Achik has named two bees new to science in honour of two pollination biologists:

Eucera dafnii is named by Achik for Prof. Amots Dafni, whom he describes as his “teacher and friend…a pioneer pollination ecologist of the Mediterranean region, who has led the research project during which much of the type series was discovered”.  Amots is almost legendary in the field, he’s been conducting research on the flora, fauna, and pollination ecology of the region since the late 1960s, and remains a productive and influential scientist.

Eucera wattsi is named in honour of Dr Stella Watts, “a talented pollination ecologist, who collected much of the type series and contributed important floral observation and palynological data for this study”.  Stella completed her PhD at the University of Northampton in 2008, with a thesis on “Plant-flower visitor interactions in the Sacred Valley of Peru”, and then went on to do a post doc with Amots in Israel.

It’s fitting that these bees are named in their honour: congratulations Amots and Stella!