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The Norwegian Aquaculture Review Council is an academic collective comprised of NTNU students Danielle Hallé, Myranda O’Shea, Bastian Poppe, Emmanual Eicholz and Peter Anthony Frank. I think it’s fair to say that most of Norway looks like the postcards. If you can peel your eyes away from the views, you’ll notice the aquaculture sea cages along the fjords, sheep grazing in the outfield, the seemingly endless network of trails, wind parks off in the distance, or a happy forger with a bucket full of mushrooms. The natural landscape offers myriad, well-utilized benefits, which makes for an interesting location for studying sustainable development and our coexistence with nature. The course The Sustainable Management of Ecosystem Services at NTNU offered an opportunity to do just that.

The course ran as a series of lectures from members of academia as well as representatives from public and private sectors. It offered a multi-disciplinary approach to how we think about sustainability, how we come up with visions and scenarios for the future and the foundational role of biodiversity. Some lectures were very theoretical (hello, ethics of assigning value to nature) and others, applied (an introduction to the farmer’s coop structure in Norway). Some members of industry had a very clear agenda of promoting their industry while others displayed perfect diplomacy. All led to interesting discussions that often trickled outside the classroom.

The highlight of the course involved a three-day excursion around central Norway to meet with stakeholders from resource-based industries. The stakeholders we met were eager to show us around their facilities and talk about their business, their challenges both past and present, and their visions for the future of their business and the industry at large. While the bulk of the course had focused on broad frameworks and international visions for sustainable development like the Aichi Targets and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the excursion provided an opportunity to see more ‘bottom-up’ initiatives (like the textile company working to develop a natural wool alternative to Gore-Tex) and the consequences of some of the policies and practices we had been studying (like the farmer criticizing the methodology behind models of greenhouse gas emissions). The use of new technologies was also a point of discussion, like the aquaculture facility that was using artificial intelligence to optimize the amount of food released into the sea cages during feeding, saving the company money and reducing the pollution from feed into surrounding waters.

All that being said, it’s important to mention that there are always trade-offs involved in any form of business, and it’s difficult to confront a company about them when you’ve been invited into their home and offered coffee. The environmental impact of aquaculture production is a heated topic in Norway. Wool used in artisanal production must still be transported to out-of-country to be processed. Organic agricultural production lacks the capacity to feed a growing population, yet conventional agriculture depends on pesticides and chemicals that can harm the environment. The list goes on. Not-so-subliminally, the backdrop of the trip included coastal accommodations complete with Northern Lights, local fare, a visit from a curious seal and of course, the views. As a few of us plunged into the fjord for a swim, the words of our professor rang out – “now this is ecosystem services!”.

The culmination of the course was a group project evaluating the sustainability of ecolabels in one of five industries: aquaculture, fisheries, textiles, agriculture and forestry. Ecolabels are a tool intended to help guide consumers towards more sustainable products (popular examples include Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, and GlobalG.A.P.). Ecolabel certification criteria should fall somewhere between idealism and reality. As one ecolabel representative stated: “no one is ever happy” because, generally-speaking, activists don’t think ecolabels go far enough and the production side thinks the requirements are too strict. Ecolabels will therefore always have trade-offs and knowing those trade-offs can help consumers make an informed choice about where to spend their money.

Since we were given creative license with the project, our first step was the formation of the Norwegian Aquaculture Review Council (NARC), a fictitious organization initially designed to help us narrow the scope of the project, have a little fun, and deliver a product that could be relevant for our hypothetical audience, the ecolabel stakeholders. In addition to the report (which you can read a summary of here), we presented our results in an interactive dashboard so that interested stakeholders could engage with our data and draw their own conclusions based on their values. In its current form, the user can filter the ecolabels’ performance according to the four dimensions of sustainability (environment, society, economy and governance) and by the seventeen United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Ultimately sustainability is determined by society’s values, so the role of NARC is to facilitate evidence-based decisions rather than making those decisions itself. This seemed like a fitting conclusion given the pluralism expressed throughout the course.

Aquaculture nets in a Norwegian fjord (Image Credit: Tristan Schmurr, CC BY 2.0)

A more long-term goal of NARC is to try to harness the untapped power of term projects. As students past and present know, term projects take a lot of work. Once they are graded, the only proof of their existence is a tombstone-like folder somewhere on your hard drive. Our hope is that the next cohort might pick up where we left off. Given the time constraints of one semester, we could only review two ecolabels. Those that follow could expand the website, add their own creative spin and populate the dashboard with more ecolabel reviews to help grow a user-friendly tool that stakeholders might actually use to navigate the ecolabel landscape.

The common thread throughout the semester was an ongoing discussion by a group of international, environmentally-minded students. A friend of mine often cites the adage “I don’t know what I think until I’m challenged” and to me, this was what I took most from the course – an opportunity to challenge others and be challenged on what a sustainable future should look like and how we can get there. We probably all took something different from the course. Some of us will stay in Norway, some will move on. In any event, I think many of us will keep in touch and I look forward to continuing the discussion.

Both EcoMass and NTNU thank NARC for their fantastic work. The summary of their review of ecolabels is available here.

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Ecology for the Masses by Adam Hasik - 4d ago

Predators like these Great tits (Parus major) eat a wide variety of insects, but some of those insects are so unpleasant to eat that birds tend to avoid them. How does this trait evolve in prey animals when its maintenance and origin depend on the predators learning by eating them? (Image Credit: Shirley Clarke, CC BY-SA 3.0).

Social information use about novel aposematic prey is not influenced by a predator’s previous experience with toxins (2019) Hämäläinen et al., Functional Ecology, https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.13395

The Crux

Many animals in nature have evolved a defense strategy known as aposematism, meaning that they display warning colors or patterns that tells predators that they are not worth eating due to their toxicity. Predators can learn to avoid aposematic prey by either sampling different prey animals and learning for themselves, or they can watch other predators eat different prey species and, depending on the reaction of that predator, learn what may or may not be good to eat.

The paradox of the evolution of this aposematic trait is that toxic prey species are not only highly visible and easily noticed by predators, but they must be attacked in order for predators to learn that they shouldn’t eat them, meaning that these prey species may not even survive long enough for them to enjoy the benefits of predator avoidance. The question then becomes are aposematic prey able to persist in nature because predator learn to avoid them? The authors of today’s paper wanted to investigate how predators that have learned to avoid toxic prey will watch and learn from other predators eating new, possibly toxic prey. 

What They Did

The predators used in this experiment were Great tits, small birds native to Europe. For the prey, the authors used small pieces of almond inside of paper packets to make two different prey types, palatable and aposematic. For the palatable prey, the packets had small crosses drawn on them (making them harder to see), and for the aposematic prey the packets had squares drawn on them (more conspicious). The aposematic almond pieces were soaked in a chemical solution, making them toxic and foul-tasting to the birds, while the palatable pieces were soaked in water as a control.

Half of the birds had their toxin levels manipulated by feeding them mealworms injected with the same chemical solution that the nuts were soaked in, while the control birds were fed plain mealworms. This was done in order to test if birds that had already consumed toxic food were more hesitant to eat new, possibly toxic food. In addition, half of the birds fed toxic mealworms and half of the birds fed regular mealworms were shown videos of other birds eating from the control and toxic almond packets, in order to teach them which packets had palatable food and which contained the toxic food. This tested the birds’ ability to watch and learn about their new prey from other predators. The other half of the birds watched a video that simply showed the packets, without any information on their toxicity.

Did You Know:  Mimics in nature

One thing that is constant in nature is the trade-off. You can’t be good at something without paying the price for it, either with costly resource investment to be good, or by being bad at something else. Some animals that live near aposematic individuals have evolved to look like these toxic animals, despite not being toxic themselves. This means that they enjoy the protection of looking toxic, without having to produce the costly toxins that make their truly toxic counterparts so unpalatable.

This can, however, backfire for both the toxic species and the mimic. If a predator learns that there are mimics in a population of prey species, then the predator is more willing to not only eat the mimics, but it is also more willing to risk eating a toxic species in the off chance that it is, in fact, an edible prey item.

What They Found

Regardless of which video the birds had seen prior to the feeding trial, most of the birds attempted to eat a visible, toxic food packet as their first choice. Birds that had been fed toxic mealworms, yet had not been shown the video of which packets were toxic, were more hesitant to eat any of the packets, most likely because their bodies were in worse shape than the control birds due to the toxic food they had already eaten.

Interestingly, the toxin level of the birds did not influence their choice of prey when foraging. The only factor that significantly affected prey choice was whether or not the bird had seen other birds eating toxic food before.

The saddleback caterpillar (Acharia stimulea) is a very noticeable insect (I mean LOOK at it!) But those bright colors tell predators to stay away, as it is quite toxic and the spines secrete a venom that can cause nausea.

Problems

The premise of this study is that predators learn to recognize unpalatable, toxic prey and will then avoid it. Great tits eat seeds in addition to insects, and I am not an expert in this field or with this system, but the authors’ use of almonds inside of paper packets with markings drawn on them seems too far removed from a natural scenario to make the results meaningful. Scientists make use of all kinds of objects and tools to get the job done (I mean, this group used a sex toy to make spiders think they were being attacked), but using paper packets instead of mealworms (which the authors had access to) doesn’t seem too biologically realistic.

So What?

The authors predicted that previous experience with toxic food would affect the likelihood of birds eating new, potentially toxic food. However, previous experience did not have an effect, and instead the best predictor of predator behavior was watching and learning from other predators.

Although toxin load did not have an effect on the predator’s decision making process, it is possible that other factors may have played a part. In this experiment the birds were offered plenty of food, toxic and otherwise, but in environments with few prey species, predators may choose to continue eating toxic food, as they would have no other choice.

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Salmon aquaculture nets near Hitra, Norway. (Image credit: Peter Anthony Frank, NTNU, CC BY 2.0)

The Norwegian Aquaculture Review Council is an academic collective comprised of NTNU students Danielle Hallé, Myranda O’Shea, Bastian Poppe, Emmanual Eicholz and Peter Anthony Frank. With so much attention on climate change and biodiversity in the media today, it is hard not to be skeptical as to whether companies are taking advantage of these paradigms for their own profit by “greenwashing” their products. Greenwashing is the common term for the practice whereby an organization presents information that gives them an air of environmental responsibility but makes no real contribution to reducing the impacts of threats like climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity.

A common tool that claims to be environmentally responsible and is very visible in consumer environments is the use of ecolabels. They come in many forms, with each label having different criteria and scope. The sheer number of ecolabels can make it difficult to know if you are choosing the “right one”. Ecolabels exist at a precarious interface between environmental and social responsibility, and fast growing and economically driven industries.
We conducted an independent review on two ecolabels, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and DEBIO, from the salmon aquaculture sector to understand what lies behind the label and whether it actually contributes to a more sustainable future. This article will present a brief overview of the results from this review, however the full report and results can be accessed at any time from here.

How we reviewed the labels

Each ecolabel operates on a different scale; DEBIO is a national certification scheme in Norway while the ASC has an international reach. To assess how each of these labels was addressing sustainability, we compared their certification criteria against the targets set forth by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — an internationally-agreed upon vision for global sustainable development. We were interested in (1) which SDG targets the ecolabel addressed and (2) to what level they were addressed. Using both allows us to differentiate between criteria that aligns with many SDG targets but has low requirements for certification, and criteria that meets few SDG targets but has high requirement standards. To minimize reviewer bias, we conducted independent reviews of each ecolabel.

Debio and ASC, the two ecolabels assessed by NARC

Salmon aquaculture and sustainability

We found that DEBIO and ASC extensively cover SDGs relating to environmental sustainability, with an emphasis on reducing marine pollution and increasing the proportion of protected and restored marine ecosystems. ASC does have a more of a focus toward sustainable use of ecosystems within their ecolabel criteria. Social sustainability was not as prioritized for the DEBIO label but ASC had several criteria that covered a broader range of social aspects such as criteria to ensure community and employee well being. The governance dimension was the most lacking of all sustainability dimensions. ASC’s criteria that does mention governance, is skewed towards SDG 16 which covers the development of effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels. It is definitely an area for improvement for both ecolabels. Finally, the economic dimension is most extensively touched on by both ecolabels in SDG 12, which aims for more sustainable and efficient management of natural resources.

No greenwashing here

The outcome of this review process suggests that ecolabels can represent more than just greenwashing. The two ecolabels we analyzed covered all the dimensions of sustainability when conducting business. We did however only review two ecolabels, and a more extensive review is needed to generalize our results. For now, it would be good advice to read what’s behind the label and understand the underlying criteria. We think that ecolabels do have an important role in promoting sustainable choices and creates practical pathways for the everyday consumer to work towards achieving the SDGs.

EcoMass and NTNU thank the students involved for their work, and invite anyone interested int he full analysis to read the full results available at this link.

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Image Credit: AntTree, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Can you help ease the global biodiversity crisis through the choices you make at your local fish market? A recent report by US-based nonprofit Eating with the Ecosystem suggests that the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

By now, you may have heard all about the recent UN report on biodiversity, a massive international effort which concluded that one million species worldwide are threatened with extinction. This is alarming news; humanity depends on biodiversity in countless ways, from energy production to security from severe weather to the food that we eat. Consider the fishing industry: the UN estimates that 17% of the world relies on fish as a primary protein source and that one in ten people worldwide depend on fisheries for their livelihood. Given the importance of fisheries, it’s critical that the global fishing industry manages the world’s marine resources in a sustainable way, which requires preservation of the intricate food webs and ecological connections in our oceans.

Are there really always more fish in the sea?

Commercial fishing is extensively regulated to ensure that fish populations can sustain themselves into the future. But even with the best available data, management mistakes have been made—and these mistakes are often devastating. In the early 1990s, for example, the population of Atlantic cod off the coast of the northeastern United States and Canada fell to a mere 1% of its previous levels, devastating the regional fishing industry. More recently, a 2015 report indicated a decrease of 74% in important food fishes such as mackerel and tuna between 1970 and 2010.

Fisheries crashes are damaging for many reasons. First, there are negative ecological impacts of nearly eliminating a major component of the marine food chain. Fisheries crashes don’t just harm the species targeted by commercial fishing; they have ripple effects that can destabilize the entire marine ecosystem, making recovery a slow, tenuous process. Second, the loss of an important food source can have serious consequences for consumers that rely on fish as a protein source. And finally, fisheries crashes can spell economic disaster for the fishing industry, which is often heavily reliant on a small number of species.

While the challenge of making commercial fisheries sustainable is complex, there is one clear action that can be taken immediately: bring the diversity of the open ocean into the market! Currently, most commercial fisheries are highly selective for a small number of popular fish species, due in large part to consumer preferences. This “all eggs in one basket” approach leaves both the ecosystem and the fishing industry at risk. A better approach would be to distribute the fishing pressure among a more diverse selection of species, making food sources and fishing economies more resilient.

Typical commercial fishing vessels, like this one, often focus their efforts on a specific species. (Image Credit: Jon D. Anderson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Science in the supermarket

This leaves us with a big question: how to convince consumers—you and me!—to buy, cook, and eat a much wider variety of fish? The selectivity of the commercial fishing industry, remember, is driven by consumer demand; if consumers show that they are willing to purchase a more diverse selection of fish, then an industry and market will more than likely follow.

Recently, scientists at Eating with the Ecosystem got creative with some ecological research methods for tackling this issue. They started out by comparing the fish species present along the coast of New England, USA, with the species found in New England grocery stores. To do this they used the Shannon-Wiener Diversity Index, a common way of measuring biodiversity in an ecosystem. In this case, the ecosystem of interest was a selection of local grocery stores.

They found that only five of 52 fish species that are common in the waters off the New England coast could be found in local grocery stores with any regularity: these species were available at least 50% of the time that consumers visited a store to look for them. In contrast, 20 of the 52 species were nearly impossible to find in the market: these 20 fish were found on fewer than 5% of grocery trips! Unsurprisingly, market diversity was a bit higher closer to the coastline than it was farther inland, but the difference was small. The main conclusion was that fish markets offer a pretty disappointing selection of fish when compared with the natural diversity just off the coast.

A fish market in Freeport, NY, USA. The Eating with the Ecosystem study investigated the diversity of seafood available at grocery stores ranging from large supermarkets to small specialized markets like this one. (Image Credit: Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Voting with your dollar (and dinner plate!)

Eating with the Ecosystem didn’t stop at describing the problem, though. They carried on with their research to try and find some solutions. For six months, they engaged 86 community scientists in a weekly research mission entitled Eat Like a Fish. Each week, volunteers were randomly assigned a set of fish species to track through the entire consumer process—shopping, purchasing, cooking, and eating. Eating with the Ecosystem compiled data on barriers that might be stopping consumers from seeking out—and creating market demand—for more unusual species.

They found that simple adjustments can make a big difference in consumers’ willingness to try a new fish species. For example, fish sellers could display recipes near more unusual products, grocery stores could offer brief cooking demonstrations, and fishmongers could put up information making it clear to consumers that they’re happy to engage in conversations about their products. Once consumers got over any initial hesitation, most of them were pleased with their purchase of a new species and reported that they’d happily buy it again.

Are you starting to feel the urge to visit your grocery store and check out their fish counter for a new-to-you species? Go for it! Eating with the Ecosystem’s main advice to you is to not be afraid. Ask your fishmonger for recipe advice, google the species name, and enjoy the experience of trying something new. If enough of us follow this advice, we can make a real difference in supporting more resilient ecosystems and fisheries—not to mention, we’ll eat some delicious seafood in the process.

Want to learn more? You can read the whole Eat Like a Fish report here.

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Animals depend on consumable energy to live, and that energy can come from a variety of places. If the energy that animals get from their food varies in quality depending on where the animals get their food, what does this mean for birds like the Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) that consumes both terrestrial and aquatic food? (Image Credit: Andrew Cannizzaro, CC BY 2.0).

Aquatic and terrestrial resources are not nutritionally reciprocal for consumers (2019) Twining et al., Functional Ecology, https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.13401

The Crux

In the natural world, ecological subsidies, or the influx of sustenance from one habitat type to another, connect a variety of environments. While research has been conducted on this topic in the past, most of it has dealt with the quantity of energy moving between habitats, but not the quality of the resource itself.

When one habitat (such as an aquatic habitat) is rich in a specific resource that is hard to find in other habitats, subsidies of these resources play a unique role by providing animals and plants with food or energy that they could otherwise not get. The authors of today’s paper wanted to investigate if subsidies from aquatic habitats and terrestrial habitats contain the same amount of that hard to find, valuable resource: highly unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids (HUFAs).

Did You Know: Ecological Subsidies

As stated above, ecological subsidies are simply the movement of energy or resources between two different kind of habitats. Examples of this include aquatic insects like those used in this study (dragonflies, midges, and other flies) which live the majority of their lives in one environment (the water), but then move into terrestrial environments when they mature into their adult forms.

Salmon are another great example of ecological subsidies, as they live much of their lives in the ocean, but then return to freshwater streams to lay their eggs. When they come back they are providing a massive amount of resources to the organisms that live and feed in and around the freshwater streams.

What They Did

The authors used Eastern Phoebe chicks (Sayornis phoebe) as their model organism, as this bird consumes insects from both terrestrial and aquatic habitats. They collected blood samples from the chicks at three different streams in order to analyze the stable isotopes (markers that allow scientists to track where the food that animals eat comes from). In addition to the blood, the authors also collected aquatic and terrestrial insects to compare with the stable isotopes analysis of the blood. The analysis of the insects allowed the authors to determine which groups of insects contained more HUFAs.

The chief question of this study is whether or not the ecological subsidies that terrestrial organisms get from aquatic habitats differ in the amount of HUFAs that they get from their terrestrial food. In order to determine if the HUFAs that animals in these habitats need are coming from aquatic food, the authors collected blood samples from fish in the streams that they sampled. Because the fish are mostly eating food from the stream itself, but also get a limited amount of terrestrial food (such as bugs that fall into the water), this allows for comparisons between two very different animals living in the same habitat.

What They Found

The diets of the Eastern Phoebe chicks differed depending on the stream sampled, with one stream’s chicks eating more aquatic insects than terrestrial, one stream’s chicks eating more terrestrial insects than aquatic, and the third stream’s chicks eating about the same amount from each habitat. Interestingly, the birds acquired the vast majority of their HUFAs from aquatic insects. Like the birds, the fish that the authors sampled ate both terrestrial and aquatic food. Also like the birds, the fish acquired the majority of their HUFAs from aquatic insects.

This freshly emerged Oklahoma Clubtail dragonfly (Phanogomphus oklahomensis) is one of thousands of species of aquatic insects that live their lives in water, but emerge to fly around as adults. providing unique food resources for birds and other insectivores (animals that eat insects). (Image Credit: Adam Hasik)

Problems

Large-scale observational studies like this one take a lot of time and effort from multiple people to succeed, and as such certain limitations are placed on studies in order to make them work logistically. This study analyzed one type of terrestrial animal (the Eastern Phoebe) and only three streams within a relatively small geographic area. These “limitations” are not truly a problem and don’t take away from the findings of this study, but they highlight the need to perform similar studies with other terrestrial animals in other places in order to determine if these results are outliers or are in fact part of a widespread trend.

So What?

This may all seem very removed and abstract when compared with the human experience, but what this study has shown is that animals from one habitat type depend on somewhat limited, but incredibly valuable resources from other habitat types. We harp a lot on habitat connectivity here on Ecology for the Masses, and connections between different habitats like this in nature are not only common, but they appear to be quite important.

A separate experiment that was part of this overall study found that Eastern Phoebe chicks raised with HUFAs grew more and were in better physical condition than those that were raised without HUFAs. What this means is that if adult birds are not able to get these HUFAs for their chicks from aquatic insects, they may end up losing their chicks, which over time could result in population collapse and local extinction. With all of the recent press surrounding the insect apocalypse, studies like this one provide evidence that when one group of animals goes extinct (insects), other groups (birds) may be soon to follow.

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I spoke with GBIF’s executive secretary and amateur lepidopterist Donald Hobern about how DNA barcoding fits into modern conservation and ecology (Image Credit: Donald Hobern, CC BY-2.0, Image Cropped)

DNA barcoding has revolutionised science. Ask anyone working in evolution or taxonomy these days what the biggest changes are the they’ve seen in their discipline, chances are it’ll be to do with gene sequencing and DNA processing. So when the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) Conference came to Trondheim last week, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about the behind the scenes work that goes into cataloguing the DNA barcodes of life on earth. I sat down with Donald Hobern, Executive Secretary of iBOL and former Executive Secretary of the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and Director of the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA). Donald joined iBOL just as they launched BIOSCAN, a $180 million dollar program which aims to accelerate the cataloguing of the world’s biodiversity in DNA form. We spoke about BIOSCAN, the technology behind bringing occurrence and genetic data together, and how the work iBOL and GBIF do ties into the bigger picture of global conservation and sustainability.

Sam Perrin (SP): You began your career at business tech giant IBM. What was your journey from IBM to iBOL like?

Donald Hobern, Executive Secretary, iBOL (DH): As a child, my only real interest was natural history. Had things gone a different way I might have ended up as a zoologist, but I dropped chemistry in high school and ended up as a programmer instead. I ended up working for IBM UK, for a total of 13 years. Eventually I emigrated to New Zealand. Now all this time I had been doing lots of birdwatching, but as I had small children and found it harder to get out and about, I shifted my attention to things that would come to me, particularly moths. In New Zealand there were very few information resources, so trying to organise the various scattered data that I could find on the web about all of these various insects was difficult. So I started playing around, making my own little databases and identification tools. And simultaneously I was getting more tired of just supporting IT customers.

I was searching for something new on the web and I found the early 2002 job adverts for GBIF, and applied. I moved from New Zealand to Denmark, to take on responsibility for the early work around data standards and interoperability for global biodiversity data. I was very fortunate to fall right into the center of the movement for integration of biodiversity information. Since then I’ve had the privilege of leading the Atlas of Living Australia, Australia’s national facility for organising biodiversity information, then coming back to Copenhhagen and leading GBIF for seven and a half years. Through all of that, I’ve had the opportunity to see the global landscape of efforts around the world to understand and to map biodiversity, to provide the kind of information we need to conserve the natural world.

SP: How would you best relate the work that GBIF, ALA and iBOL do to the bigger picture?

DH: A lot of it fits within those larger themes, such as the work of the Convention on Biological Diversity, and right at the top, the United Nations sustainable development goals (SDGs). And I’m interested therefore in how every vegetation survey or insect collection can feed into this enormous interconnected understanding of the world that we need if we’re going to treat biodiversity responsibly as part of this world that we live in.

I imagine it this way. If there’s a politician who’s really serious about a fully rounded agenda for improving the life of their people and leaving behind a liveable world, I’d like them to be thinking about every single one of the SDGs. But if I was in that position and trying to make judgements about how to maintain biodiversity as part of that, I would need to know so many things. What’s our expected projection of urbanisation? If my economy is decarbonising, what sort of land do I need for wind or solar farms? Today, it would be very hard to put biodiversity properly into that equation.

So for a long time I’ve been interested in the work of iBOL, and the progress that has been made around DNA barcoding as a way to shine a light into the portions of natural systems where an awful lot of the real species turnover happens. Where much of the real diversity exists and yet where we just have so little data today. And if we can use DNA barcoding to help to fill out our understanding of the diversity on earth and support future taxonomic and conservation efforts, that’s a huge win for me and for the planet.

“To my mind, our first question is how many species exist, and how do we recognise them. The second question is how these species are organised in time and space. If we could answer those two things, we’d have a lot of what I think we need if we’re going to support those sustainable development goals.” (Image Credit: DOnald Hobern, CC BY-SA 2.0)

SP: You’ve spent a lot of time with GBIF bringing together datasets from everywhere. What’s the biggest challenge integrating such disparate data?

DH: The biggest challenge for us is that the identification of organisms remains very, very difficult. Understanding what species are recorded is difficult, whether it’s a specimen in a collection or a field observation by a naturalist, or something referred to in the literature from 50 years ago. We may have a name, but there’s very rarely adequate information associated with that name to be able fully to untangle all of the possible sources of error and develop a confidence metric around that identification.

One of the other activities that GBIF is heavily involved in is addressing the fundamental catalogue of species that currently have defined names, and trying to link that up to some of the species for which we have DNA-based identifications. Many species IDs are Latin binomials, but increasingly we have IDs which involve things like barcode index numbers (BINs).

Historically the greatest challenge we’ve had was getting data to be sufficiently open. When GBIF first started there was a lot of concern, even from institutes that were major proponents of a global biodiversity facility. One concern was that if they shared their data freely on the web, someone would download it, put it on a CD and sell it at a profit. Thankfully none of that seems ever to have happened. At the same time, over the last 20 years we’ve seen a growth in open data, open science, to the point where funding bodies actually expect data to be open. Today the barriers to sharing data are more around the challenges of people having to do a little bit of extra work to share their data. And so we need to lower that technical threshold.

SP: Can you take me through what BIOSCAN is?

DH: iBOL has gone through an evolution since its early days. The initial focus revolved around Sanger sequencing. The idea was to develop a library of barcodes, primarily from museum specimens, but also from some freshly collected organisms. The efforts of iBOL and the energies of so many groups around the world, meant that we came to the end of the first phase of this activity with a reference library for around 500,000 species. And over that period and through the last couple of years since that first phase ended, we’ve seen the advance of sequencing technologies, which offer us more and more scope for continuing to lower the price point for sequencing new materials.

Now we’ve hit the point where the costs make it much more feasible for us to think about a massive upscaling of the number of different individual specimens that we sample. That really accelerates building out a library of barcodes that is much closer to the known range of biodiversity of earth. The same reduction in costs has put us at a point where it becomes much more viable for us to use metabarcoding approaches as a general purpose tool for repeated surveying and sampling of the environment, rather than spending a lot of time looking for one or two particular species a couple of times. We’re probably on the edge of solutions that allow us to almost ‘stream’ biodiversity data, just as we could monitor atmospheric carbon or ocean pH, with sensors giving us continuous signals. We’re not quite there yet, but we’ve got most of the tools in place and are making progress on the rest.

BIOSCAN is really the fusion of these things, an attempt to use the current state of technology over the next few years to accelerate the filling out of a reference library, which is the fundamental bedrock of what iBOL does. We have the tools, the processes, the pipelines for establishing a global biodiversity monitoring system based on DNA identifications. BIOSCAN brings that together. To my mind, our first question is how many species exist, and how do we recognise them. The second question is how these species are organised in time and space. If we could answer those two things, we’d have a lot of what I think we need if we’re going to support those sustainable development goals.

SP: What sort of implications does this have for ecology?

DH: So at a basic level, iBOL is producing a list of individual species. But every species is itself a universe of associations with other species, microbes, bacteria, fungi, parasitoids, food. And that if we’re able to barcode those simultaneously with the central organism around which they are clustered, then we start building up pictures of the interconnectedness of that individual. It’s giving us the tools to probe really interesting questions about evolution and ecology, particularly community ecology.

SP: What’s the leap you’d like to see in barcoding technology?

DH: I’m a passionate amateur naturalist. I spend a lot of time on iNaturalist uploading photos and working with others on identifications, particularly for Australian insects. I live next to probably the most intensively sampled (from the standpoint of insect taxonomy) patch of land in Australia. Right next to Black Mountain where the Australian National Insect Collection is based. And there have been decades of pretty intensive collection in the area. But even there, of the thousand or so moth species that are readily found in my garden, probably 20-30% can be assigned to a genus, but with no formal name. So it would be really fabulous if I knew whether the ones that I’m getting in my garden and the ones that somebody is getting 800km away are the same thing, whether they’re different, and for us somehow to be able to collaborate in providing much more robust information about these insects that are fascinating us all. Rather than just sticking them all in a undiscriminated genus ‘bucket’.

Even today in Australia, I find that people are using the image-based information they can get out of the Barcode of Life Data (BOLD) System to help them with diagnosis. But we don’t know what all the different forms represented on BOLD really are. We don’t necessarily know in each case whether it’s a good species or whether it’s ultimately just a well-marked variant of a known species. No-one’s dug deeply enough into all of them. So I would love to be in a position where I was not necessarily be able to tell which species it was, but at the very least to be able to get barcodes cheaply, and for others to be able to do the same thing, so we can compare our findings. Until recently we’ve been talking about submitting a plate of 96 specimens for 1000 dollars to get DNA barcodes for each specimen. If we could get that down to a price point of 20c, 50c per specimen, I think there would be a radical upsurge in amateurs wanting to avail themselves of this opportunity to understand more about the insects in their own local patch.

SP: So how do we make that happen?

DH: If we get to the point where we can secure enough funding just to write off a large part of the world’s sequencing costs, everything will change. Take running a malaise trap for a year as an example. If sequencing is off the table as a cost, then you’ve got the cost of a malaise trap, the cost of the consumables and ethanol, and probably some postage costs, but you’re probably only talking about a few hundred dollars per trap per year. And if we had price points for different countries and sampling methods, whether that’s a collecting plate fastened to the sea bed or an insect trap in a coniferous forest, then we can start thinking about more novel ways to engage a much broader part of the community in cataloguing life on Earth.

For this to happen, we need to make the idea and the information more accessible. I picture a web-based view for each collecting site that shows you the organisms that are recorded in this month at this site, the ones that we have binomials for, the ones that we don’t. Which ones we have sequences for, which ones we have images of. Then you can explore everything from temporal diversity to an organism’s seasonal changes. Exposing all kinds of diversity in a very visible way could really connect with the public, and with educators. As well as thrilling the heart of amateur naturalists like myself.

Donald is a passionate amateur naturalist, and has a fantastic flickr account, which you can check out here (Image Credit: Donald Hobern, CC BY 2.0)

SP: We’re talking about big leaps in technology on the DNA side, but there’s ongoing development on the informatics side too. Have there been times where growth on either side hasn’t matched the other?

DH: I’d actually say that there are four interconnecting areas where our efforts have to keep lining up. There’s the sequencing technologies and the associated bioinformatics, but there are also issues around long-term storage, both for the digital products and for the physical/DNA samples. And I think those 4 things are going to keep stretching us in all directions.

Firstly, there are potentially vast volumes of data that could be coming to us, from different sources, from metabarcoding activities. If we get to the point where there are sensors in the environment that are more or less continually streaming, that could mean hideous volumes of data.

Secondly, one of the exciting things about barcoding is that it decouples two things that previously have we have always had to treat in sequential order. Unless you had sorted out the taxonomy you couldn’t record what you had found in the environment with any clarity. That’s what’s called the ‘taxonomic impediment’. So what DNA barcodes do is make it possible to desynchronise the collection and the identification. But, if we really want to benefit as much as we can from that desynchronisation, we need to have an IT system that continuously updates the understanding and the labelling of the barcodes that are collected, based on the increasingly fine resolution of taxonomic understanding. So as a new organism is described, any barcodes that match up to it that were previously in unnamed BINs below genera become associated with the species name, along with all the distributional space/time data that they bring. And there are challenges in building a continuously reinterpreting system like that.

SP: These are big leaps we’re talking about. So how do we translate those technological leaps into changes in society?

DH: Well the biggest challenge is how to communicate this in a way that overcomes the increasingly deeply grained skepticism about science generally. And that’s difficult. Because you’re dealing with people who are not interested in facts. And that’s going to be tough.

I’m very much an analytic, fact-based person. And so my assumption has always been that we have to make it easier for people to get access to information that allows them to make intelligent decisions. But right now, we’re not limited by knowledge, we’re limited by lack of will to act. And I’m not sure how much that’s going to change just from having more information.

Yesterday there were photos in the Guardian of a glacier in Greenland with dogs running across it, and the top ten centimetres were thawed. Images like that have an enormous effect. Like polar bears on ice floes. And I think we have to allow some optimism for the fact that single images, single things that really are just memes, can have really deep effects. The view of the earth from space is something that affected how people saw the fragility of the environment.

But on the data side, we’re starting to see public response to extreme weather events and rapid changes in the environment, as well as to things like the insect apocalypse and the IPBES summary. That’s a cause for some encouragement.

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We’ve all seen them, either on Instagram or out on the hiking trails and in creek beds. Sure, it may look cool in your time lapse video, but did you know that every single one of these is causing damage to the environment? (Image credit: Craig Stanfill CC BY-SA 2.0).

Yes, cairns are bad. Yes, they look cool, and yes, you get lots of likes for them, but they are bad for the environment and YOU SHOULD STOP BUILDING THEM! There, now that that’s out of the way, let’s have a conversation about cairns and why you should never, EVER, build another one again (and actually take down any that you see).

Cairns and Nature

Earlier this year I took a trip to Zion National Park in southern Utah. A famous natural park full of incredible views, gorgeous geological features, and ugly piles of rock. Wait, what was that last one? Something about ugly piles of rocks?

I’m referring to cairns, the piles of rocks that people can’t seem to stop making at every single trail and park that I’ve been to in recent memory. Now, I know that in some parks and on some trails, cairns are important trail markers and are sometimes the only way for hikers to know that they are on the right path and not getting lost. That being said, you will never find a cairn meant to mark your path in the middle of a creek. Or in a forest that has trees available for blazes (pieces of colorful metal or spray paint on trees that mark the correct trail). Or on a scenic overlook where there are signs marking the trail (I took down no less than five cairns at Angel’s Landing).

The thing about these cairns is that they require anywhere from a few to dozens of rocks to make, and when humans take these rocks and build these cairns they are not only leaving evidence of their visit (*cough* leave no trace! *cough*), they are also destroying the homes of many different organisms. Sometimes, these rocks that are removed are necessary for the health of the ecosystem, like in streams and rivers. Aquatic insects, fish, and amphibians (like the Hellbender, seriously look this critter up) all depend on the crevices and hollows between and under rocks to make their homes, and when you take them out to build your little stack of rocks you are literally killing them. Additionally, the algae that used to be on the rock can no longer filter the water and provide oxygen to the system, only adding to the problems that are plaguing the water body.

Graffiti in Joshua Tree National Park. Pretty ugly, right? If wouldn’t use spray paint to deface a natural environment, then you shouldn’t build cairns. They may look better, but cairns have the same detrimental effect, and in some cases can actually be worse for the environment. (Image credit: National Park Service/Hannah Schwalbe, Public Domain).

The General Public and Cairns

I have to come clean and say that I used to think that cairns were the coolest thing. It was a few years ago when this whole craze really kicked off thanks to the explosive popularity of social media, and I saw a video of some “spiritual guru” type building a cairn in the middle of a gorgeous stream. It was seriously cool how he was able to stack all of these differently-sized rocks and maintain the balance, and it was mesmerizing to watch the process. I’ve never built a cairn myself, but had I had the chance back then I would have. I’ve since learned how bad these are for the environment, but not everyone has had the opportunity that I have had to learn a lot about the natural world.

Some people make them as a meditative exercise, or as an expression of their artistic side. Others find it a spiritual experience, with every rock symbolizing a different aspect of their character or some goal they want to achieve. But here’s the thing, all of these different things can be done away from nature, and even if you want to do these things in the great outdoors, there are ways to do it without defacing the environment.

Cairns such as these serve no purpose as trailmarkers, and only serve to clutter up the natural scenery and destroy habitats. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I have seen sights like this more than once on my hikes (Image Credit: 3dman_eu).

Good usage of cairns

Cairn is a Gaelic word for, creatively, “heap of stones”. As the origin of the name suggests, cairns are not a new thing. They have been used as a navigational tool all over the world for centuries, and as I said above they are still used for this precise purpose. They allow park rangers to mark a trail without disrupting the natural scenery with signposts, and they can be the difference between life and death for hikers who are looking for the trail. I have to actually thank cairns for helping me on a hike I took out in New Mexico at the Bandelier National Monument. My friends and I were in a pretty desolate patch of desert between the pine forests, and the ground was very rocky and devoid of any kind of plant life to support the trail blazes that we had been using up to that point. Thankfully, there were cairns along the trail that let us know we were heading the right way.

Take Home Message

I hope that I have convinced you that the health and natural beauty of our planet’s fragile ecosystems are more important than a cool photo that you’ll forget about pretty soon after you leave. They are the same thing as spray painting all over a rock face, and no one likes to see that, do they?

And hey, if that doesn’t convince you, how about this: IT IS ILLEGAL. You can face legal action if park officials see you building cairns. Not everyone cares about the natural world, but no one wants fines/jail time.

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Environmental DNA is a hot topic in biomonitoring. But what is it exactly, and how can it be used to monitor the dispersal of a reintroduced fish species? (Image credit: Gunnar Jacobs, CC BY-SA 2.0, Image Cropped).

Guest post by Christopher Hempel

Using environmental DNA to monitor the reintroduction success of the Rhine sculpin (Cottus rhenanus) in a restored stream (2019) Hempel et al., PeerJ, https://peerj.com/preprints/27574/

The Crux

The term “environmental DNA (eDNA)” is currently booming in molecular ecology. But what exactly is this technological marvel? Essentially, eDNA comprises all DNA released by organisms into their environment, and originates from mucus, scales, faeces, epidermal cells, saliva, urine, hair, feathers – basically anything an organism might get rid of during its life. The eDNA can be collected from the environment, extracted, and analyzed to detect species using molecular approaches. As this is a very sensitive and non-invasive approach, it is a very hot topic for biomonitoring.

eDNA can be collected from any animal (in theory), but aquatic organisms in particular have been shown to be good target individuals (as eDNA is easiest to handle in water samples). Consequently, there are many studies using eDNA to monitor the activity of fish, reaching from the presence of invasive species to the effects of aquaculture. Here, we applied eDNA analysis to monitor a reintroduced fish species, the Rhine sculpin. The sculpin’s poor swimming ability make it useful as a bioindicator of the passability of streams and rivers. We wanted to investigate the potential of using eDNA to monitor the dispersal of the species in a remediated stream on a fine spatial and temporal scale.

What We Did

We reintroduced 118 individuals of the Rhine sculpin into a small German stream. The stream has been used as an open sewer system for wastewater disposal from the 19th century on, but recent conservation work has left the stream partially restored (or ‘remediated’) and it now represents a near-natural ecosystem. We installed a barrier downstream of the reintroduction sites and took water samples every 50 meters upstream of the sites, up to 550 meters. 300 meters beyond the last sampling site upstream there was a loose stone dam, which was expected to represent a dispersal barrier for the fish.

We sampled every third day for ten days, then once a month for three months. After one year, we took additional samples, and also carried out electrofishing (temporarily stunning fish with electroshocks) to visually validate our findings. Due to unexpected findings, we again sampled after one more month.

We filtered the water samples and processed the filters in the laboratory to extract eDNA. We then analyzed the eDNA in the laboratory to detect eDNA of the Rhine sculpin, which indicated the presence of the fish.

Did You Know: The Fate of Stream and River eDNA

Although eDNA is supposed to be fragile and only present as single molecules, it persists surprisingly well in freshwater, and shows an incredible transportation potential. These fragile molecules are able to survive up to one month in aquatic environments, and were shown to be transported up to 130 kilometer downstream in rivers. There are hence attempts to establish eDNA as a biomonitoring tool for whole ecosystems, taking advantage of its long persistence and travel distances. The aim is to detect all species of an ecosystem by taking water samples from terminal lakes, in which all streams and rivers flow into, accumulating eDNA from every animal that got in contact with those streams and rivers. If this idea is feasible needs to be seen.

What We Found

We found that the fish dispersed qickly initially (200 meters within the first five days) makign it to the last sampling site within the first ten days. This is almost eight ties as fast as previously observed behaviour. Most likely, the high number of reintroduced individuals led to high competition between individuals and hence to rapid dispersal in upstream direction.

We also found that within the first 104 days, the dispersal stopped at the potential dispersal barrier 300 meters upstream. One year later, we still did not find the species upstream of the barrier using electrofishing. However, we surprisingly detected eDNA of the fish upstream of the barrier. To make sure this was not due to sample contamination, we collected water samples after one more month and again detected Rhine sculpin eDNA, validating the presence of the species upstream of the barrier. We only guess as to how the fish was able to cross the barrier. Maybe small individuals were able to swim through the lose stone dam, or the fish were able to swim over the dam during rare flooding events. It is also possible that children, who frequently play at the stream, transferred individuals into the section upstream of the barrier.

Finally, we found a much higher detection rate of Rhine sculpin eDNA at every single sampling site downstream of the barrier after one year, and also visually detected several individuals at every sampling site via electrofishing, including juveniles. This confirms the successful establishment of the species in the remediated stream.

Production (top) and collection (bottom) of environmental DNA, shown for the Rhine sculpin (Image Credit: Christopher Hempel, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Problems

In theory, a single DNA molecule is enough to be detected using molecular approaches, but in practice bias can be introduced at several steps during the molecular sample processing. We failed to detect eDNA at times, even when we’d previously detected it in the same place before. We need to keep in in mind that no eDNA detection of the species does not mean it is not there.

So What?

So how does science benefit from knowing that the dispersal of a reintroduced fish species could be monitored using eDNA? Well, our results represent two scientifically new insights. Number one is that eDNA analysis is not only applicable for large-scale dispersal monitoring as has been shown in previous studies, but also on a smaller, more detailed scale. This implies that eDNA analysis is applicable for detailed dispersal monitoring of reintroduced or invasive species, at least in freshwater.

It also means that eDNA analysis can be a useful tool to investigate remediation processes, as it validated the good passability of the remediated stream section, even for a fish with poor swimming abilities. This was not possible within this study using traditional electrofishing. eDNA has the potential for being used as an ecosystem monitoring tool for future water management.

Christopher Hempel is a PhD Candidate at the University of Guelph. You can follow his work on Twitter here.

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Image Credit: Christopher Michel, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

It’s an image that is ubiquitous in the media when the words ‘climate change’ pop up. The lone polar bear, drifting through the sea on a single ice floe. It is an effective image, evoking emotions like pity, loneliness and general despair for the plight of what has become the flagship species of what seems like the entire Arctic. But is associating the health of an entire ecosystem with one species useful, or dangerous?

Arctic ecologists have been worried about the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) for quite a while now. In the 90s, the first primary research was published which suggested that a warming climate could lead to a decline in their populations. Polar bears are dependent on sea ice to hunt ringed and bearded seals, ice which is now breaking up earlier than ever before. The southernmost populations of polar bears historically fasted over the summer, as sea ice becomes sparse an unreliable. However as summers have extended, the period over which polar bears would need to fast becomes untenable. There have been direct links shown between the length of the ice-free period and polar bear weight the next. Researchers have predicted declines in the southernmost populations first, which will eventually extend further north in the polar bear’s historic range.

So yes, the polar bear could face population declines and a range constriction as the planet warms. Though they could also adapt, and maintain a stable population, although perhaps at lower numbers. This isn’t what has made them the poster-child for climate change in the Arctic though.

A flagship species is one that is used to raise concern about or funding for an ecosystem. This is the polar bear to a tee – they’ve come to represent the plight of the Arctic in the face of climate change. And since the Arctic is being affected by climate change at a faster rate than other parts of the world, they’ve come to represent the impact of climate change itself. Flagship species are generally charismatic. Charismatic species are often large and/or mammalian and/or carnivores, all of which fit the polar bear. In 2014, Jean-Michel Roberge showed that the polar bear was by far the most tweeted species, being shown or mentioned on Twitter almost 4 times as much as the next species (the American bison). The scene of the polar bear struggling to find prey among a pack of walruses in Attenborough’s Planet Earth was one of the series’ most iconic scenes (although BOY did the walruses get theirs in the second season).

But is linking the health of the Arctic to the persistence of the polar bear a good idea? We know that Arctic ecosystems are facing a multitude of challenges outside of sea ice break-up, both relating to the planet’s biodiversity and to a rising climate. Rising temperatures are forcing other species further north and throwing food webs into chaos. Overfishing and Arctic aquaculture industries continue to threaten biodiversity and fish sustainability. The thawing of permafrost could release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, kicking off a negative feedback loop. Reindeer populations are facing increased losses as rain falls earlier in the year and freezes. The list goes on. The point is, that if polar bear populations do find a way to stabilise or adapt, there are still a cacophony of problems that the Arctic faces.

The Arctic faces a multitude of ecological issues, including the thawing of permafrost, which could release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere (Image Credit: NPS Climate Change Response, CC BY 2.0)

There IS actually a decent chance that the polar bear will persist, too. Several populations of polar bears have maintained productivity in the face of the adversity presented by the loss of sea ice, with many adapting to new food sources like whale carcasses and snow geese. Those populations seem to be doing ok, while populations that are still heavily dependent on seals seem to be facing declines. The gradual nature of climate change means that other populations may still have time to adapt their diet, though what that may mean for human/polar-bear interactions is also a potential problem.

The question then becomes – if the polar bear persists, does public concern for the Arctic wane? This is the problem with linking the health of the planet so closely to one species.

It’s a problem that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature is well aware of. In 2009 at the Copenhagen climate change conference, they proposed ten additional species to be used as flagship species to “share the polar bear’s burden”. Unfortunately, a year later there was no sign that any of them had been actively used for their intended purpose.

Ultimately this comes down to the same issue that we’ve talked about multiple times on Ecology for the Masses. That it’s hard to get people to care about an abstract concept like an ecosystem without a tangible, charismatic object to lock onto. Overcoming that hurdle requires an enormous shift in how we talk about conservation (and nature in general) to the public, away from single species and towards the concept of an ecological community. Until then we have to hope that a) the polar bear survives the effects of climate change, and b) that if it does, our efforts in halting the degradation of the Arctic landscape will not suffer because of it.

Further reading

Effects of climate warming on polar bears: a review of the evidence by Stirling and Derocher, 2012.

Defining Flagship Uses is Critical for Flagship Selection: A Critique of the IUCN Climate Change Flagship Fleet by Barua et al., 2011.

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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.

I had the pleasure of joining my colleagues from the NTNU University Museum at The Big Challenge Science Festival in Trondheim recently (you can read more about that here). When presenting people with the loss of native species, and the potential influx of alien ones, many people seemed genuinely worried. The changes this part of the world have already experienced were also apparent. It hit very close to home for me hearing some of the children visiting our stand ask what a barn swallow is. I have fond childhood memories of those birds flying around every summer, and I’m definitely not old enough yet to start talking about the ‘good old days’.

There are plenty of reasons why the decrease in biodiversity is happening, arguably the two largest being habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. All over the world, cities are growing and inevitably, this happens at the cost of other habitat types – although some species have made the cities their homes (I’m looking at you, rats and pigeons).

Fragmentation occurs when a large patch of habitat (be it a forest, grassland, riverbed, you name it) is cut up into smaller pieces. Your garden can be viewed as such a fragment, potentially resembling a miniature grassland. Even though the total area of miniature grasslands spread out in your neighborhood might be equal to the grassland area that was there before, the inability of many species to move directly from one small patch to the next means the two aren’t equal. One large patch is better than several small ones. But as cities keep growing, even more fragmentation is happening. Therefore, it is so important that we let those tiny fragments be of high quality.

Several visitors to the exhibition seemed thrilled by the idea of managing their gardens for biodiversity, and the prospect of having more wildlife on their doorstep. One woman happily showed us a video of a badger, which had moved in after they started managing their garden with biodiversity in mind.

Seeing a badger sniff around their wild garden was a treat for two visitors to our exhibition at the FUTURUM display.

People asked us what they themselves could do. They wanted in, but just did not know what to do or where to start. Therefore, we are here to give you a (by no means complete) checklist on how to manage your own backyard to benefit local biodiversity. If you are lazy, like myself, I have great news! The main thing to do is: do less!

Put your feet up, chill out

If you are a garden owner, this might sound counterintuitive, but I am dead serious. Stop doing so much! Stop mowing the grass and trimming the hedges constantly. The constant stress and disturbance is working against most species. For example, the Danish Ornithological Society advises people not to trim their hedges at all until after August 1st, as several bird species can have their nests in there (you wouldn’t like it either, if someone tore down the wall of your bedroom during breeding season!).

This point also includes cutting back on fertilizers and pesticides.

Leave patches untouched

To continue the point above: leave some parts of you garden alone completely, or at least mow them infrequently and strategically. Guidelines can be found online, e.g. here. The grass will be tall, the dandelions will bloom, but so will other gorgeous plant species, and these will attract insects, which will attract insect-eating birds and mammals, which in turn might attract birds of prey and other predators (I think you get the point by now).

Maybe even leave some dead branches or rotting leaf matter to allow decomposers as well, and make a little pond for drinking and amphibians – you can get the full cycle!

Pull the plug on the robot lawn mower

If you can’t do that, at least adjust the height of the clipping to a bit taller than before – this way some smaller herbs might survive. And for the love of God, do NOT leave it on during the night! I repeat DO NOT leave it unsupervised – an increasing number of hedgehogs are mutilated and/or killed by those things.

Do not plant alien species – use natives!

We have covered this point before, so I will not go into details – instead, check out Malene’s great post on the subject here! In short: do not plant species which are imported and/or are not natives!

Build homes for native animals

Now you have the plants covered, but the animals are a little slow to find their way to your little sanctuary – so write the invitation in bold letters! Put up an insect hotel to encourage more critters to settle, put up some bird boxes, or maybe even bat boxes!

For a guide (in Norwegian) for how to build an environmentally friendly garden, you can check out these points by SABIMA as well.

So in summary: let it grow, and let it be messy. Now go and be a good garden manager: sit down, out your feet up!

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