Monthly Archives: November 2016

Spiral Sunday #10 – a shrine in Tenerife

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To celebrate number ten in my series I thought I would fulfil a promise that I made in Spiral Sunday #1 to tell the story behind the main image of a blue spiral that adorns this blog.

In 2008 I was leading a group of students on a walk in the Anaga region of Tenerife during our annual undergraduate field course to the island.  We were hiking through laurel forest along the trails from the restaurant at Cruz del Carmen,  looking at the forest and cliff vegetation community structure.  During our lunch break I set off alone down a side trail and came across a shallow recess, a sort of low natural grotto, in the vertical bank that defined one side of the track.

The walls of the grotto were green with lichen which made a vivid backdrop to what appeared to be a small consisting of branches, including one set upright that looked like a human figure with arms raised, or could it represent a crucifix?  Around this were scattered coloured pencils (to the right on the main image) and pieces of paper with writing on them, possibly prayers (on the left).

Most striking of all was a drawing of a blue spiral, its colours smudged and faded with the humidity, but still a conspicuous contrast to the lichen.  I took a few photographs, being careful not to disturb the display, then headed back to catch up with the students.

There is a strong local sense of traditional, pre-Spanish identity in this part of Tenerife and it is well known for its local stories such as the “Witches of Anaga“, and it’s possible that this shrine relates to local ritualistic practices.  The spiral is a traditional design used by the original Guanche inhabitants of the Canary Islands and still regularly found on logos, pottery, etc.  Alternatively what I discovered could have been just kids playing in the forest, though that seems unlikely as it’s off the beaten track and not close to any villages.

I’ve occasionally found other ritualistic items on the island (e.g. a child’s doll wrapped in cloth, with folded paper in the bindings) but the Anaga spiral shrine was a particualrly striking discovery.  When we returned with the field course the following year the spiral had disintegrated but the rest of the shrine had been tidied up and more neatly arranged (see lower photograph).  I wonder if it’s still there?

 

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The Biodiversity Impact of Waterside Campus: an interim report on the bird surveys

bird-gains-and-losses

In previous posts I’ve discussed the work that we are doing monitoring the effects of building a large, new campus for the University of Northampton (see: Monitoring the biodiversity impact of the new Waterside Campus and a video I did of a talk about this project).  We have finally got round to writing an an interim report on the bird surveys we have been conducting (2014-2016), repeating the initial baseline surveys that were carried out in 2012-13.  The executive summary is below and you can download a PDF of the full report here.

As you will see it’s a mixed picture, with some losses and some gains of species, but we are broadly optimistic that the planned landscaping and habitat creation will have a positive effect come the 2018 opening date of Waterside Campus.  It’s important to note that studies such as this which follow up initial ecological surveys and assess the subsequent impact over time are extremely rare as there is no statutory obligation to do so.

Winter surveys will begin shortly and I will report back late next year, time willing.  Any questions or comments, please let me know.

 

Executive summary

  • Surveys of winter and spring bird diversity are being carried out to assess the effects of construction activities and habitat creation on local biodiversity at the University of Northampton’s new Waterside Campus.

 

  • These results are compared to pre-construction baseline surveys in winter 2012-13 and spring 2013, undertaken as part of the ecological impact assessment of the site.

 

  • Results after two repeat sets of surveys (winter 2014-15 and 2015-16; spring 2015 and 2016) are presented, with birds grouped into RSPB Green, Amber and Red categories.

 

  • Winter bird diversity has dropped from 41 species to 31 species; more Red and Amber listed birds have been lost than Green listed species.

 

  • Spring bird diversity has dropped from 40 to 36 species; more Green and Amber listed birds were lost, but the number of Red listed species increased slightly.

 

  • As well as losing species the site has gained birds that were not recorded in the baseline surveys, including Green-listed Coot and Treecreeper, the Amber-listed Stock dove, and the Red-listed House sparrow.

 

  • In addition, most of the “missing” birds are known to occur at sites 500m to 1000m from Waterside and could return following the end of construction and appropriate habitat creation.

 

  • Surveys will continue until after Waterside Campus opens in 2018, and analyses will be undertaken to tease out how these changes in bird numbers are related to changes to both the local and regional environments.

 

  • Outputs from this project so far include two conference presentations and two final year dissertations (one completed and one planned). At least one peer-reviewed research paper is anticipated.

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5th annual Postgraduate Research Symposium at Moulton College (Northants) – 15th December

Really interesting line up of speakers at the 5th Postgraduate Research Symposium at Moulton College Thursday 15th December 2016 in P9 (Lecture Theatre, Pitsford Centre (Gate 4), Moulton, Northampton, NN3 7QL).

For more information and to book a place for catering purposes, please contact Dr Wanda McCormick: wanda.mccormick@moulton.ac.uk

1.00pm Steve Davies Principal: Opening address

1.15pm Julia Lock: Tree health: without the chemicals

1.30pm Helen Tedds:  What does the future hold for exotic pet welfare?

1.45pm Blessing Katampe: Overview of aquaculture in Nigeria: prospects and challenges

2.00pm Claire Mitchell: Canine skull morphology: what we know so far

2.15pm Zainab Al-Rubaye: Lameness detection in sheep via multi-data analysis of a wearable sensor

2.30pm BREAK

2.45pm Emily Howard-Williams: The effect of eroded ecological networks on the movement of harvest mice (Micromys minutus)

3.00pm Clare Ellis: Do domestic rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) show individual consistency in their response to being handled?

3.15pm Dominic Langdon: Inter-session reliability of resting systolic blood pressure and centre of pressure in young adults

3.30pm Jessica York: The kinematics of the equine axial skeleton when exercising on an aqua-treadmill

3.45pm Alex Laws: Impacts of solar farms on UK agriculture

4.00pm Adnan Haq: An evaluation of the effects of whole body cryotherapy treatment for sports recovery

4.15pm COFFEE, TEA, MINCE PIES AND NETWORKING

 

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Engaging students with the fundamentals of biodiversity (2) – an assessed plant taxonomy questionnaire

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In my post last week I described “The Taxonomy of Gastronomy“, a first year undergraduate exercise aimed at giving students experience and confidence using scientific names for species, as well as providing an understanding of taxonomic hierarchies and food diversity.  The follow-up to this is an assessed questionnaire that focuses more deeply on plant taxonomy, phylogenetics, and human uses.  Here’s the text of the exercise [with a few annotations in square brackets for clarity]:

 

ENV1012 Biodiversity: an Introduction

Assessed Questionnaire

This exercise is assessed and is worth 25% of your final grade for this module.

The questionnaire is time constrained; you have two hours in which to complete it. Once completed, upload it to NILE using the Submit Your Work folder [NILE is our Blackboard e-learning platform]. Any questions, please ask or email me if I’m not in the room [email provided – the class is so large that I had to split it across two computer suites].

The Task

At the beginning of this session you will be given the name of a plant family.  Your job over the next two hours is to research that family and answer the questions below. Each of you will be researching a different plant family so by all means discuss what you are doing and collaborate, but everyone’s final answers will be different.

For this exercise focus on the following websites:

The Tree of Life Project: http://www.tolweb.org/tree/

Wikispecies: https://species.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

Note that we don’t usually recommend Wikipedia as a source of information, but much of the taxonomic material on this site is quite good because it is produced and maintained by experts.

 

The Questions

Be accurate in your answers: you will lose marks for misspelled scientific names, genus and species names not italicised, appropriate use of capital initials, etc.

Do not copy and paste from websites – this will be spotted with the software that we use and your answers will be rejected.

 

  1. What is the scientific name of the plant family you are researching?
  1. Which botanist named the family? Hint – you will find an abbreviation of the name on the Wikipedia page.
  1. Does this family have a common name? If so, what is it? If not, say so.
  1. What is the distribution of the family, e.g. tropical or temperate, New World or Old World, global?
  1. Fill in this blanks on this taxonomic hierarchy:

Kingdom:  Plantae

Order:

Family:

Subfamilies (if present):

Tribes (if present):

 

  1. What is the estimated number of genera in the family?
  1. Provide the names of up to three of those genera:

a.

b.

c.

  1. What is the estimated number of species in the family?
  1. What mode(s) of pollination do species in this family possess (e.g. wind, animal, water)?
  1. Provide a short description of the human uses of this family (no more than 50 words):

 

Using the Tree of Life site, find and list:

  1. The sister family or families to your family (hint: it’s the family or families closest on the evolutionary tree).
  1. The first “containing group” for your family (may be an unranked, informal taxonomic level).
  1. The next “containing group”.
  1. Keep going until you get to the final “containing group” – where do you end up? [a slightly trick question – everyone ends up at the same place]
  1. State one surprising or unexpected thing that you have learned from doing this exercise (no more than 25 words).

 

My students have now completed this exercise and I was very pleased with the outcome: the average grade was around A-/B+ and no one failed (yet, there are still come non-submissions…).  The answers to question 15 were particularly interesting and included things like: “I had no idea that potatoes and chillies were closely related”, “amazed at the diversity of plants”, “didn’t realise that plants were so fascinating”.

The fact that students were able to do this in small groups, and discuss their findings, yet still produce largely unique answers, added a lot to the enjoyment of this exercise I think.  Certainly there was a buzz in the room while they were researching their answers.  It will be interesting to see what the module feedback is like at the end of term.

The grading criteria for this assessed questionnaire were fairly simple and straightforward:

  1. All questions answered.
  2. Answers are grammatically correct, with appropriate use of scientific conventions, e.g. underlined genus and species names, use of capitals, etc.
  3. Information presented is accurate

 

As always, feel free to comment, make suggestions, and point out errors and improvements.

 

 

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Spiral Sunday #9 – slate spiral on the David Attenborough Building, Cambridge

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This week’s Spiral Sunday features a shot I took of a slate-clad wall on the David Attenborough Building during a recent visit to Cambridge.  I really like the way the artists Ackroyd & Harvey have incorporated the square elements into this Fibonacci Spiral by changing the orientation of the pieces of slate.  It’s a stunning piece of work that my photograph doesn’t really do justice.

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Have we broken the planet?

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A graph showing this year’s figures for area of global sea ice, in comparison with the same data for the past c. 40 years, was widely shared on Twitter yesterday, resulting in a lot of discussion and consternation.  I’m not on Twitter (yet…) and picked this up from Terry McGlynn’s Facebook feed.  The graph shows an anomalously low extent of sea ice compared with what we would expect at this time of the year, in fact a drop of about 25%.

As you can see, something looks to be seriously wrong.  For more discussion about the graph, see this piece over at The Verge.

I’ve not discussed climate change much on this blog, it’s not my area of specialism and there are plenty of other good bloggers out there who are far more knowledgeable than I.  But graphs like this are hugely worrying because they not only suggest that aspects of our climate may be at a tipping point where they change from one state/predictable pattern to another.  That’s a concern on a global level, because it’s strong evidence for global warming.  However the reduction in sea ice also has huge implications for the biodiversity that depends upon the ice.

If I hear any more news on this I’ll post it, but in the meantime it’s worth pondering whether perhaps the UK’s signing up for the Paris Climate Agreement this week is a bit too late.  As my colleague Duncan McCollin put it: “we’ve broken the planet”.  I hope he’s wrong.

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Managing for Pollinators – a special issue of the Natural Areas Journal

Inula at Ravensthorpe 20160710_145426The October issue of the Natural Areas Journal is a special one devoted to the topic of “Managing for Pollinators”.  All of the papers have a North American focus but I think that they will be of general interest to anyone, anywhere in the world, who is concerned with how best to manage habitats for pollinators.  Here’s the contents page of the issue, copied and pasted from the site; I’m not sure if the full text links will work if you or your institution does not have full text access, but you should at least be able to view the abstracts:

Editorial: Pollinators are in Our Nature Full Access

Introduction by USFS Chief Tidwell – Pollinators and Pollination open access

pg(s) 361–361

Citation : Full Text : PDF (227 KB)

National Seed Strategy: Restoring Pollinator Habitat Begins with the Right Seed in the Right Place at the Right Time Full Access

Peggy Olwell and Lindsey Riibe
pg(s) 363–365

Citation : Full Text : PDF (1479 KB)

Hummingbird Conservation in Mexico: The Natural Protected Areas System Full Access

M.C. Arizmendi, H. Berlanga, C. Rodríguez-Flores, V. Vargas-Canales, L. Montes-Leyva and R. Lira
pg(s) 366–376

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (1302 KB)

Floral Guilds of Bees in Sagebrush Steppe: Comparing Bee Usage of Wildflowers Available for Postfire Restoration Full Access

James H. Cane and Byron Love
pg(s) 377–391

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (1500 KB)

The Role of Floral Density in Determining Bee Foraging Behavior: A Natural Experiment Full Access

Bethanne Bruninga-Socolar, Elizabeth E. Crone and Rachael Winfree
pg(s) 392–399

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (1219 KB)

Common Methods for Tallgrass Prairie Restoration and Their Potential Effects on Bee Diversity Full Access

Alexandra Harmon-Threatt and Kristen Chin
pg(s) 400–411

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (300 KB)

Status, Threats and Conservation Recommendations for Wild Bumble Bees (Bombus spp.) in Ontario, Canada: A Review for Policymakers and Practitioners Full Access

Sheila R. Colla
pg(s) 412–426

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (420 KB)

Conserving Pollinators in North American Forests: A Review Full Access

James L. Hanula, Michael D. Ulyshen and Scott Horn
pg(s) 427–439

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (1711 KB)

Dispersal Limitation, Climate Change, and Practical Tools for Butterfly Conservation in Intensively Used Landscapes Full Access

Laura E. Coristine, Peter Soroye, Rosana Nobre Soares, Cassandra Robillard and Jeremy T. Kerr
pg(s) 440–452

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (4647 KB) : Supplementary Materials

Revised State Wildlife Action Plans Offer New Opportunities for Pollinator Conservation in the USA Full Access

Jonathan R. Mawdsley and Mark Humpert
pg(s) 453–457

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (249 KB)

Diet Overlap of Mammalian Herbivores and Native Bees: Implications for Managing Co-occurring Grazers and Pollinators Full Access

Sandra J. DeBano, Samantha M. Roof, Mary M. Rowland and Lauren A. Smith
pg(s) 458–477

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (1537 KB)

The Role of Honey Bees as Pollinators in Natural Areas Full Access

Clare E. Aslan, Christina T. Liang, Ben Galindo, Hill Kimberly and Walter Topete
pg(s) 478–488

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (467 KB)

Food Chain Restoration for Pollinators: Regional Habitat Recovery Strategies Involving Protected Areas of the Southwest Full Access

Steve Buckley and Gary Paul Nabhan
pg(s) 489–497

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (732 KB)

Forbs: Foundation for Restoration of Monarch Butterflies, other Pollinators, and Greater Sage-Grouse in the Western United States Full Access

R. Kasten Dumroese, Tara Luna, Jeremiah R. Pinto and Thomas D. Landis
pg(s) 499–511

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (1716 KB)

Using Pollinator Seed Mixes in Landscape Restoration Boosts Bee Visitation and Reproduction in the Rare Local Endemic Santa Susana Tarweed,Deinandra minthornii Full Access

Mary B. Galea, Victoria Wojcik and Christopher Dunn
pg(s) 512–522

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (2880 KB)

Save Our Bats, Save Our Tequila: Industry and Science Join Forces to Help Bats and Agaves Full Access

Roberto-Emiliano Trejo-Salazar, Luis E. Eguiarte, David Suro-Piñera and Rodrigo A. Medellin
pg(s) 523–530

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (463 KB)

The Importance of Phenological Diversity in Seed Mixes for Pollinator Restoration Full Access

Kayri Havens and Pati Vitt
pg(s) 531–537

Abstract & References : Full Text : PDF (2208 KB) : Supplementary Materials

Stewardship in Action Full Access

Sarah Riehl
pg(s) 538–541

Citation : Full Text : PDF (595 KB)

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Engaging students with the fundamentals of biodiversity (1) – “The Taxonomy of Gastronomy”

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This term we have started refreshing and reformatting our first year undergraduate modules, partly in preparation for the move to our new Waterside Campus, but also because they were beginning to feel a bit tired and jaded.  We have begun with ENV1012  Biodiversity: an Introduction, a 20 CATS module which mainly services our BSc Environmental Science and BSc Biology programmes.

One of the changes has been to go from a “long-thin” delivery of 2 class hours per week over two terms, to a “short-fat” delivery of 4 hours per week in one term.  The advantages of this, we think, are two-fold: (1) it provides students with a richer, more immersive experience because they are not mind-flitting between different topics; (2) it frees up longer blocks of time for academic staff to focus on programme development, research activities, etc.

For now we have opted to deliver the 4 hours in a single session.  That’s quite a long time for the students (and staff) to be taught (teaching) but it’s punctuated by short breaks and includes a lot of practical work in the field, lab, and computer suite.

One of the aims of ENV1012  Biodiversity: an Introduction is to engage the students with the use of taxonomic names of species and higher groups, familiarise them with the principles of biological classification, why this is important (and why it underpins the rest of biology and much of the environmental sciences), and so forth.  Building confidence in how scientific names are used, and the diversity of species that all of us encounter on a day-to-day basis, are important aspects of this, and I developed a couple of new exercises that we are trialling this term which are focused on these areas.

The first one is called “The Taxonomy of Gastronomy” and was partly inspired by a conversation I had with Steve Heard when he posted about The Plant Gastrodiversity Game.  It works like this. I begin with an interactive lecture that sets out the basic ideas behind taxonomic classification and its importance.  After a short break the students then begin the hands-on part of the exercise.  Working in groups of three they use a work sheet that lists 10 culinary dishes, including:  fried cod, chips, and mushy peas; spotted dick; spaghetti bolognese; Thai green curry with tofu & okra; chocolate brownies, etc. (this can easily be varied and adapted according to needs).

The students’ first task is to find a recipe online for each dish.  For each biological ingredient in that dish, they list its common name and find its taxonomic family, genus, and species (italicising the latter two, as per taxonomic conventions).  I emphasise that it is important to be accurate with names as they will be doing something similar in a later assessed exercise.

This takes a couple of hours and then they feedback their results in a debriefing session, including finding out who had the longest list of species in a meal – the winner was 17 species in a moussaka recipe, with a Jamie Oliver fish and chips recipe coming a credible second with 12!  We also discuss particularly common taxa that turn up frequently, for example plant families such as Solanaceae – the relatedness of tomatoes, chillies, peppers, potatoes, and aubergine, the students found very intriguing.

By the end of this exercise the students will have gained familiarity with researching, understanding, handling, and writing scientific names of species and higher taxonomic groups.  In addition they will have a better understanding of the taxonomic diversity of organisms that we consume, and their relatedness.  It may also have encouraged them to try out some new recipes!

If anyone wishes to comment or add suggestions for improvements, please do.  If you’d like to try this yourself with your own students feel free to adapt it to your own needs, though an acknowledgement somewhere would be polite.

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Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Personal biodiversity, University of Northampton

The Living Planet Report 2016 – taking stock with a student seminar

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This morning I started the first in a series of weekly two-hour seminar sessions with my final year undergraduate students on their Biodiversity and Conservation module.  By this stage in their BSc programme the students are being weaned off lectures and being encouraged to take a more critical perspective on the published scientific literature.  Each week we deal with a specific issue relating to biodiversity such as: measuring biodiversity; current trends; spatial patterns; biodiversity and  ecosystem services; and how much is there still to discover about biodiversity?

This morning we focused on the Living Planet Report 2016, the latest installment of an annual assessment of the rate and extent to which we are losing animals across the globe.  The report, which came out last month, generated a lot of media attention with headlines such as “World wildlife falls by 58% in 40 years” and “World on track to lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020“.

As preparation for the seminar I asked the students to read the first chapter of the report and then during the session I divided them into groups of three in order to take stock* of the report and answer a series of questions such as:

What do you understand by the “Anthropocene”?

What do you understand by the “Living Planet Index” (LPI)?

How do the LPIs vary across the planet and across taxonomic groups?

What is the evidence base for these trends?

Which LPIs show the greatest declines and which LPIs show the least declines? Can you account for these patterns?

Which LPI trend do you consider to be the most worrying, and why?

By way of a counter-point to the media hype, and to consider one potential area of criticism of the report, I also ask the students to look at critiques written by Simon Leather (You don’t need charismatic megafauna to go on an exciting safari) and Ryan Clarke (What about the little things?).  In both of these posts the bloggers take the report to task by pointing out that it ignores the vast majority of animal life, i.e. invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans, and so forth.

Simon and Ryan have a valid point, of course, but the fact of the matter is that we simply don’t have the same quality of long-term population data for invertebrates as we do for  birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians.  The exception to that is the butterflies which the Living Planet Report does discuss, devoting a whole page to grassland butterflies.  It also states (p20) that “Methods to incorporate invertebrates and plants are now in development”.

Although the hype around the report is a bit over the top, nonetheless this focus on the best possible data sets does emphasise the fact that the world’s biodiversity is declining in species richness and abundance.  The final question I ask the students is whether, in their opinion, we on the verge of a “Sixth Mass Extinction” (as the report suggests).  A show of hands at the end showed that about half think “yes”, a quarter think “no”; and a quarter (myself included) said “we don’t know”.  It was a nice demonstration of the complexities around coming to any kind of consensus when it comes to reports such as this.

All-in-all it was a great session, the students really engaged with it and raised some very interesting points.  I’m looking forward to the rest of these seminars, they promise to be very stimulating.

 

 

*Before anyone comments, yes, I know that the photo shows a pillory not a set of stocks.  But we don’t have a set of stocks at the university, only a pillory.  Exactly why we have a pillory on campus is another matter…..

 

 

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Spiral Sunday #8 – a skep for honey bees

Co-op skep20161113_145113.png

This week’s Spiral Sunday post is appearing rather later than usual as we’ve just got back from a weekend trip to Lancaster to see my son Patrick.  It was nice to be back in the north and in the homeland of my paternal grandfather’s family: my father’s family hailed originally from Lancashire before his father migrated to the north east in about 1900.

At the top of the street where Patrick’s house is located is a building that used to belong to a local Co-Operative Society store, a fine organisation with its roots in Lancashire.  Above the doorway is a beautiful stone carving of a skep, a traditional honey bee hive made by coiling straw in a spiral to form a dome shape, and the traditional symbol of the Co-Operative Society.  The spiral is not obvious from this, so you’ll just have to trust me!

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