Tag Archives: Nature

Ecologists with gardens: in the current crisis, coordinate your networks to collect standardised data!


In the current lockdown period of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of ecologists are stuck at home: universities and research institutes are closed and it’s not possible to get out and do field work.  Staring out of the window into our garden the other day I had a bright idea and I sent out this email to my network of colleagues in the UK who work on pollinator ecology:

Hi everyone,

I hope you’re all keeping well and safe during this difficult time. Given that we’re all supposed to be socially isolating as much as possible I wondered if we could use the time to generate some interesting data and keep ourselves sane in the process. The idea I had was for as many UK & Irish pollination ecologists as possible to carry out standardised garden surveys of insect-flower visitor interactions over the coming weeks. Combined with information about location, size of garden, floral diversity, etc. etc., it could give us some useful information about early spring plant-visitor garden networks along latitudinal and longitudinal gradients.

For those with kids at home it might be a good way of getting them out into fresh air and giving them something to do.
The response has been phenomenal and a lot of colleagues have agreed to take part.  We’ve worked out a protocol and we are starting to collect data.  If anyone (in the UK or elsewhere in the world) with the requisite pollinator and plant identification skills and experience wants to get involved, please send me an email: jeff.ollerton [at] northampton.ac.uk

Of course others who are less experienced can still help out by taking part in the Pollinator Monitoring Scheme’s  FIT (Flower-Insect Timed) counts: https://www.ceh.ac.uk/our-science/projects/pollinator-monitoring

However, it also struck me that there are plenty of other ecologists who could use their gardens, and networks of colleagues, to collect a large amount of useful data, in a standard way, across a wide geographical area, e.g. plant-herbivore interactions, bird behaviour, earthworm counts, etc. etc.

Let’s get away from our computers and into the fresh air and start generating results!


Filed under Biodiversity, Pollination, Urban biodiversity

Digital resources for teaching biodiversity online: some ideas to steal

Andrena bicolor

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

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

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

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

Again, feel free to steal these if they are useful


Here’s the text I send to students:


Digital resources for biodiversity: a virtual seminar

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

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


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

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

Digital resources:

Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF)



United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Data Explorer



Interaction Web Database



Kew Herbarium



National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Atlas



Database of Insects and their Food Plants



Natural History Museum Data Portal



British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Garden Birdwatch



British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Bird Trends



Global Biotic Interactions (GloBI)



Global Invasive Species Database




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Filed under Biodiversity, University of Northampton

Landscapes for pollinators: please take the survey!

BB on margin

One of the research projects and collaborations that I’m involved with is a BBSRC-funded project entitled “Modelling landscapes for resilient pollination services in the UK” with colleagues from the University of Reading, the University of Huddersfield, and the Natural Capital Solutions consultancy.  As part of that project we are surveying opinions on what people in the UK value as landscapes and how these landscapes contribute to supporting biodiversity.

If you are based in the UK and are interested in taking part in this short survey, please read the following text and click on the link to take the survey: 

Bees and other insect pollinators are major contributors to UK agriculture. Despite their importance for crop production, pollinator populations are threatened by many modern land management and agricultural practices. This raises questions about how secure this service may be to future changes: will we have enough pollinators where we need them? Will populations be able to withstand changes to the way we manage land? What might be the costs to us, both financially and socially, if we get it wrong?

Our research aims to address this knowledge gap. Our team of ecologist, economists and social scientists are working together to model the ecological, economic and ‘human’ costs of different land management methods.

As part of this we have designed a short online survey to capture the ways that people value and use the countryside, what features they prefer and why.

The survey takes less than 10 minutes and asks you to rate a series of images and say what you think about the landscapes that are illustrated.  It can be found here:


For more information about the project visit:



Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Butterflies, Ecosystem services, Hoverflies, Pollination

Ecologists in a time of COVID-19


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Butterflies, Climate change, University of Northampton

Impact of extreme events on pollinators: download it for free

SHOCKs image

In my last post I highlighted a couple of recent papers on climate change and extreme events, and how they impact pollinators.  The Erenler et al. (2020) mini-review paper that I mentioned has now been published and is available for free download for the next 50 days.  Follow the hot link here:

Erenler, H.E., Gillman, M.P. & Ollerton, J. (2020) Impact of extreme events on pollinator assemblages.  Current Opinion in Insect Science 38: 34-39

This review is one of several from a themed issue of Current Opinion in Insect Science devoted to Ecology.  The issue is edited by Tom Ings from Anglia Ruskin University and Sarah Arnold from University of Greenwich.



Filed under Biodiversity, Climate change

Pollinators, climate change, and extreme events: two recent publications

SHOCKs image

Well, we’re back in the UK now and have just about got over the jet lag.  I’ve returned to teaching, admin, and meetings, and both Karin and I are trying to find time to finish our books.  But the persistent backdrop to our stay in Australia – the bushfires and the role of climate change, and the ensuing tensions between scientific evidence and politics – is still fresh in our minds.  It’s timely, then, to highlight two new papers that focus on extreme events, climate change and pollinators.  The first is one of my own, led by Dr Hilary Erenler who carried out her PhD research in my group.  It’s an invited mini-review in the journal Current Opinion in Insect Science entitled “Impact of extreme events on pollinator assemblages” (Erenler et al. 2020).  The review is available as a pre-print on the journal’s website; we’ve not yet even seen the proofs, though the final version should not be too different.  If you want a copy, just ask.

In this essay we focus on what we term SHOCKS: events that provide a Sudden, High-magnitude Opportunity for a Catastrophic ‘Kick’ to the environment that can negatively affect pollinator assemblages in many different ways.  Such events can be natural, human-mediated or human-enhanced, and occur suddenly, at a high-magnitude and with possibly catastrophic outcomes for those pollinators. There are many examples of such SHOCKs, as we illustrate in the figure above which comes from the paper.  However one of our main conclusions is just how little we understand about the outcomes of such events on pollinators.  Ideally we need before, during and after event monitoring to assess how pollinators have been affected and may respond.  But SHOCKs are, by their very nature, infrequent and unpredictable, and often we don’t have the baseline data with which to compare to post-event data.  I know from conversations with Australian pollination ecologists that some have had their field sites burned and they are going to use this as an opportunity to assess how the fires have impacted pollinators.  Field experiments such as the one by Biella et al. (2019) that I discussed last year, in which flowers were removed from a plant community, may also give us some insights into the response of plant-pollinator networks to sudden SHOCKs.  But we need more research focus on this topic, especially consideration of how the impacts of SHOCKs can be reduced and mitigated.

One set of emerging human-enhanced SHOCKs highlighted by Erenler et al. (2020) is extreme weather events that are being exacerbated (in scale or frequency) by anthropogenic climate change.  We cite several papers and reviews that have considered this, but there’s still few empirical studies that have actually looked at how weather SHOCKs might be impacting pollinators.  It’s therefore timely that this week’s Science includes a very impressive study of how climate change has affected populations of bumblebees (Bombus spp.) in Europe and North America (Soroye et al. 2020).

The title of the paper rather gives away its findings:  “Climate change contributes to widespread declines among bumble bees across continents“.  This study shows that, for the 66 species of Bombus studied, there had been a decline in species diversity in 100 km x 100 km quadrats of, on average, 46% in North America and 17% in Europe.  This loss of diversity has occurred in the period 2000–2014, relative to a baseline of 1901–1974.  Using some sophisticated analyses they show that climate change has been the main driver of these losses, and has been more important than factors such as changes in land use, pesticides, etc.  Which is not to discount those other contributors to pollinator loss: they can interact with climate change and are all part of the assault that we are imposing on the environment.

The most significant finding of the Soroye et al. (2020) study, and the reason why I’m discussing Erenler et al. (2020) in the same post, is that it’s extreme heat which seems to be the driving factor in determining Bombus declines.  Bumblebees are large, hairy insects because they are adapted to cooler conditions: they are not, by and large, tropical insects, except in mountainous areas.  Not surprisingly, then, it is the number of days of temperatures higher than those historically encountered by particular bee species that is the main driver of their loss from a region.  In relation to the figure above, this is the result of human-enhanced SHOCKs, and for heat-sensitive species like bumblebees, they are occurring more often than we had imagined when we wrote our review.  I fear that the coming years will see more examples of this as the effects of anthropogenic climate change continue to play out and our world experiences more extremes of weather events that are hotter, wetter, colder, drier, windier, and more combustible than we have previously known.


Biella P., Akter A., Ollerton J., Tarrant S., Janeček Š., Jersáková J. & Klecka J. (2019) Experimental loss of generalist plants reveals alterations in plant-pollinator interactions and a constrained flexibility of foraging. Scientific Reports 9: 1-13

Erenler, H.E., Gillman, M.P. & Ollerton, J. (2020) Impact of extreme events on pollinator assemblages.  Current Opinion in Insect Science (in press)

Soroye, P., Newbold, T. & Kerr, J. (2020) Climate change contributes to widespread declines among bumble bees across continents. Science 367: 685-688 [see also the commentary by Bridle and van Rensburg pp. 626-627 of the same issue]


Filed under Australia, Bees, Biodiversity, Climate change

Neither left nor right, but international environmentalism: Australia reflections part 8

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The NASA Earth Observatory reported this week that “explosive fire activity” has caused smoke from the Australian bushfires to enter the stratosphere and be carried half way around the world.  That smoke is currently creating hazy skies and colourful sunrises and sunsets across South America.  In the coming months the smoke will complete a full circuit and arrive back in Australia, and then continue onwards … for who knows how long?

Nothing I’ve read this week sums up better the fact that the world’s environmental challenges, including climate change, are global in scale and scope.  They therefore require global initiatives to solve.  But as I’ll argue below, equating “green” politics with the left and “anti-environmental” policies with the right is an unhelpful characterisation.

Despite the need for global action, the world’s political landscape seems to be going in the opposite direction.  Inward-looking, right-wing populism is on the rise, and governments are hunkering down into a siege mentality of denying that there are any environmental problems that require serious, long-term action.  The Australian government, bolstered by the Murdoch-owned media empire (see Michael Mann’s recent piece on this in Newsweek), sees the bushfire crisis as “business as usual” even though all the evidence is to the contrary – demonstrated in this interesting piece from two Australian climate scientists.

Elsewhere in the world, Presidents Bolsonaro in Brazil and Trump in the USA are tearing up environmental regulations and “green tape” and allowing “the people” (or at least big business interests) to ransack the natural world for their own gain.  At the same time, one of the less-well-reported elements of Boris Johnson’s various speeches over the past few months has been its emphasis on the environment (he even used the word “biodiversity” in one of them) and the pressure he put on the other leaders of the G7 countries at their most recent meeting.  Perhaps that should come as no surprise given that Boris’s father, former Conservative MEP Stanley Johnson, has sound credentials as an environmentalist, particularly during his time with the European Commission. Indeed, in the mid 1980s Stanley Johnson received an award from Greenpeace for “Outstanding Services to the Environment”.  He’s even written for The Guardian, which is not the natural home for a member of the Conservative party.  There are other Conservatives with sincere pro-environmental attitudes (Zac Goldsmith and Rory Stewart come immediately to mind) and whatever you may think about their views on other topics, you can’t doubt their sincere environmental commitments.  And of course there are pro-environmental politicians in the Labour Party, and the Liberals and the SNP and Plaid Cymru and…..well, just about all of them.

Globally, both right- and left-governed states have variable environmental policies. Two countries recently reported that they had made extraordinary progress in tree planting restoration schemes: India (a right-wing, populist government) and Ethiopia (much more left-leaning).  China (communist in name but who knows what we should call it?) has a very mixed record on the environment, with huge investments in both solar power and coal mining.  It’s hard to get firm environmental data out of communist North Korea but the evidence so far suggests that they are not doing well: see this piece from 2009 by journalist Peter Hayes.

Closer to home, in the last few months on Twitter I’ve been called an “eco-loony” by a farmer; told that my objections to the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail infrastructure project were providing support for climate change deniers by a couple of train buffs; and accused of “sleeping with the enemy” by an environmental activist who didn’t like my stance on another large project.  The latter also tweeted a made-up quote from me to emphasise just how morally corrupt I was. Irony was lost on them I think.  I don’t know the political allegiances of those individuals but if I was a betting man I’d be fairly sure of a good return – definitely a mix across the spectrum.

Hopefully these examples make something abundantly clear: the relationship between politics and environmentalism is not straightforward.  That’s been obvious to me, and many others, for a long time.  But I’m not sure how widely understood this is because the impression that is presented to the public by both the right- and left-leaning media, is that “green equals left”.  And whilst there may be some truth to that currently in relation to the political alliances formed between various Green Parties, there is no historical basis for this correlation.  It’s even mixed up in the minds of the modern-day socialists. A few months ago a left-wing journalist opined that the left had “always” been pro-environmental, yet the (supposedly) socialist website Spiked has been publishing pieces arguing that environmentalists are against the working class and that de-carbonisation strategies will cost jobs – see this piece for instance.  Before anyone comments, I’m aware that Spiked has an odd and paradoxical history…..

Historically, both the far left and the far right have a mixed track record on the environment.  I read an appalling story recently about the Soviet Union whaling fleet killing whales simply to meet targets, not because they were of value economically; the author described it as “the most senseless environmental crime of the 20th century“.  However, communist Cuba set aside 10% of its area as national parks and biosphere reserves, and has a strong environmental track record.  In the 1950s, Maoist China had a policy of killing sparrows and other “pests” that was partly the cause of the Great Chinese Famine in which tens of millions of people died of starvation.  The first National Parks in the world were set up in the USA by what we could broadly consider conservative presidents, but the American legacy of nuclear testing and the fossil fuel industry is nothing to be proud of.  Finally, there is a long history of “green” fascism, from the environmental policies of the Nazis (I’ve not read this book but it looks fascinating), to individuals such as Jorian Jenks who was a founding member of the Soil Association, to modern day “eco-fascists” whose justification for carrying out mass-murder and domestic terrorism is rooted in arguments about reducing population growth in order to “save the Earth”.

It’s telling that Big Capitalism is starting to think more seriously about global environmental problems, how they can be solved, and at the same time create jobs and prosperity (and a buck or two for investors – I’m not naive).  Outgoing head of the Bank of England Mark Carney  has argued that firms and banks need to stop investing in fossil-fuels.  Many are following his lead, or are ahead of that curve, including the bank Goldman Sachs and the $7 trillion investment firm BlackRock which has recently stated that “climate change will become the centre of the firm’s investment strategy“.  Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman  has argued this week that Australia is showing us “the road to hell” and that governments and businesses of all political stripes and inclination better get on board with the environmental agenda.  Soon!

I firmly believe that neither the left nor the right are the friend nor the foe of environmentalism: there are plenty of historical and current examples of rapacious right-wing and left-wing governments, and also examples of such governments being highly pro-active at reducing  their country’s environmental impact.  The one thing that seems to me to be environmentally damaging is a rigid ideology that is followed through regardless of where it is positioned.

The title of this piece is a word play on a slogan adopted by the Socialist Workers Party: “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism”.  The environmental challenges facing our planet, our species, and the species with which we share this biosphere, are international in scope and it requires international, multi-partisan political action to address.   Whatever your personal political leanings, if you care about the planet, that statement must be blindingly obvious.  That’s why I’m so supportive of organisations like the UN’s IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services).  Now, more than ever, the world needs this level of pan-national leadership.

If I’ve learned one thing as an ecologist it’s that the world is a complex, historically contingent and often unpredictable place: simplistic notions of socialism = good/bad and capitalism = good/bad are not going to solve the current crisis of climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution, and a host of other environmental problems.  Only thinking outside of narrow ideologies is going to do that, and using the tools and strategies that are available to us, including market forces, open democracy, local activism, global movements, and whatever else works.  I’m still optimistic that the world can provide humanity with the kind of  metaphorical “pleasant walks” that Charles Darwin wrote about when he visited the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney:

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But we have to act fast.  Otherwise the ruins of civilization, and of the biosphere, may be our species’ legacy: that’s why I chose the image that opens this piece.


Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Charles Darwin, Climate change, IPBES

Life between the tides: Australia reflections part 6

2019-12-08 13.35.05

That last post about climate change and politics was a bit heavy, for which I make no apologies.  But there’s always space for something lighter on this blog.  Sometimes it’s nice to reflect on what brought me to the point of being a scientist with an interest in biodiversity.  Some of my earliest exposure to natural history involved peering into rock pools on the coast near Sunderland in the north east of England.  In an old family album there’s a photograph of me aged about four, intently gazing at the welks, crabs and anemones as they wait for the next tidal surge to bring food or predators.  If I wasn’t in Australia I’d go and hunt that photo down and share it with you.  Right into my 20s my dad would tell any and every one about my childhood obsession with “gannin’ on the yocks”.  The word “gannin'” is north eastern colloquial English for “going” while “yocks” was me not being able to pronounce “rocks”.  “I’m gannin’ on the yocks” became a family catchphrase that could be used in any number of circumstances.  It might just sum up my professional career if I think hard about it….

Later, at school and then college, I took part in several class projects that involved running transect lines down the shore and examining the zonation of the creatures: more hardy organisms, predictably, at higher points, the sensitive species lower down.  Generations of biology students must have done similar studies.  Do they still?

These rocky shore reminiscences have been inspired by a great piece of writing about tide pooling by Sarah Jean McPeek over at the Lively Discussions blog.  I can’t match Sarah’s eloquent lyricism but I can match her love of a rocky shore.  There are some great ones on the coast near Coogee, ranging from very small, deep holes, up to huge, artificial ones that were built as ocean swimming pools. Here’s some photos:

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Holes within a pool.  This is a great opportunity for a rocky shore ecologist to do a replicated manipulation experiment:

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This is a different kind of experiment to test the hypothesis that water in large pools has evaporated enough to make it significantly more saline and thus increase the buoyancy of the human body.  Hypothesis supported:

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A classic wave-cut platform:

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This very distinctive seaweed is known as Neptune’s necklace (Hormosira banksii):

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This pool is being influenced by a freshwater spring that’s coming in from the left:

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These fresh water streams and pools are important for the local coastal birds, including silver gulls (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae) which belong to the same genus as black-headed gulls (C. ridibundus) in the northern hemisphere but which I think is a prettier species:

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Australian white ibis (Threskiornis molucca) also enjoy the fresh water pools:

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Humans have inhabited this coastal area for at least 20,000 years and its the traditional land of the Cadigal people.  In more recent times the locals have enjoyed the huge tidal swimming pool known as Wylie’s Baths.  I’ve snorkeled here a few times and seen some beautiful fish and invertebrates:

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Much further up the coast at Port Macquarie, which we visited over Christmas as I recalled in this post, the geology is very different.  The rocky shores are composed of hard volcanic basalt rather than the softer Sydney sandstone:

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This is an incredibly dynamic environment.  According to my relatives in Port Macquarie, the place where Karin is standing was until recently a rock pool almost two metres deep that was rapidly filled up by the shifting sands of the coast.  Winter storms will probably scour the sand out again.  Will the limpets and barnacles have survived I wonder?

2019-12-24 11.04.12

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Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Birds, Geology

A land of fire and water: Australia reflections part 3

Fire and water; those opposing elements have been our constant companions during this trip to Australia.  All the major international news media have been reporting on how serious the bush fire situation is in the south east of the continent.  In East Gippsland, Victoria, tens of thousands of residents and holiday makers have been advised to leave the area.  Four thousand of those who haven’t left were forced to spend last night on the beach, as fires got closer to the town of Mallacoota.  These are just the latest examples of climate change refugees in their own country, something I highlighted in a post about our visit to the USA earlier this year.  Of course, Australia is a continent that is used to bush fires, they are nothing new.  But what is new is the scale of these fires and the extended drought and high temperatures that are making the landscape more flammable than ever.

There’s currently a lot of media discussion in Australia about how landscapes were managed historically by Aboriginal peoples, whose selective and regular burning of the bush reduced fuel loads.  Karin and I have just returned from Port Macquarie where we enjoyed Christmas with an Australian branch of our family.  Several of them have spent a considerable amount of time working with remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.  We were told a story about an Aboriginal elder who asked one of our relatives to drive him out to an area of bush that had not been burned for over a decade.  It was that elder’s role to burn this land at regular intervals, a family tradition that went back generations.  Having driven for several hours along dirt roads, the elder asked to stop; he hopped out of the vehicle, went up to a patch of dry grass, and casually set fire to it with a small lighter he was carrying.  After pausing a few seconds to make sure that the flame had caught he hopped back into the car and said “Let’s get out of here”.  An hour back down the road the companions stopped and looked back.  The whole landscape was aflame, with a column of black smoke rising, I was told, in a mushroom cloud “like a nuclear explosion”.

This sounds extreme, but these areas are isolated and a long way from any human settlements or infrastructure.  Such activities have been part of toolbox of ways in which Aboriginal peoples have managed these landscapes for thousands of years.  By burning areas on a regular cycle the negative effects of large, out-of-control fires are reduced, and opportunities for seedling establishment and fresh foliage for animals to browse are created.  There’s more information about these practices here and here.

In the more heavily populated parts of Australia, and in the adjacent national parks, fires have long been suppressed, such that when they do occur they are much more violent conflagrations, over a greater area, than would normally be the case.

On one of our trips near Port Macquarie we came across an area of woodland that had burned recently, separated by a small road from an adjacent block that had not burned.  In the following set of images I’ve alternated the two blocks so you can see what the woodland looked like before and after burning.  But remember that this was not an especially intense fire; the trees are still living, and there is foliage in their crowns.  Once there’s been some rain and a chance for the vegetation to regrow, the previously burned block will look identical to the currently unburned area.  Indeed in one shot you can already see some green shoots emerging from the ground:

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So fire in itself is not a problem for these natural communities.  What is a problem, for nature and for the communities of people who live in and around these woodlands, is the intensity, the scale and the frequency of the fires that are currently occurring.  This morning Karin and I watched silently to a news report of yet another volunteer fire fighter who had lost his life overnight.  In this case he had been part of a crew whose 10 tonne fire truck had been lifted up and overturned by cyclone-strength winds created by the blaze itself – there’s a BBC news account of the tragedy here.  “Unprecedented” is a word we’re hearing a lot on ABC News.

Evidence for the number and size of the fires was everywhere in and around Port Macquarie, as we observed when we took a drive up to the peak of North Brother Mountain in Doorgan National Park.  From a height of about 470 m (1500 ft) we could see some amazing panoramic views of the region that also showed black fire scars on the landscape – this is looking south:

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Looking north there’s little evidence of the fires – some have occurred there but much smaller in scale.  But there is a lot of that second element, water.  We were able to explore some shallow coastal lagoons fringed with grey mangroves (Avicennia marina):

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Mangrove habitats are fascinating places that are ecologically important as nurseries for marine fish and invertebrates.  They also provide physical protection to coastlines, acting as a buffer to storm surges that would erode the land.  In recognition of this, a recent project around Port Macquarie has involved restoration of these mangrove areas and was instigated by commercial oyster farmers and a local fishing  society.  I’m particularly intrigued by the upward-pointing aerial roots of mangroves; termed pneumatophores, they function to provide oxygen to the trees, but also increase the physical complexity of the floor of the lagoon, providing habitats for small animals:

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But evidence of the drought in this part of the world is never far away.  On our seven-hour train trip back to Sydney we passed mile after mile of parched farmland, with dried-up waterholes and dust-filled streams.  The only thing stopping it from burning is the absence of vegetation:

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As I complete this blog post, it’s 31st December and we’re back in Coogee Bay, ensconced in the apartment of my colleagues Angela and Stephen.  They have headed to Stephen’s native Canada to visit family.  It’s going to be cold!  We’re very happy to house sit and see in the New Year in warmer climes.  Best wishes for 2020 to all of my readers: let’s hope that it’s the start of an environmentally more enlightened decade.


Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Climate change, Ecosystem services

Ash on the beach, fire in the bush: Australia reflections part 1

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Although we’ve only been in Australia for less that two weeks, it feels as if we’ve been here forever; once we got over the jetlag and the weird sleeping patterns, Karin and I have easily settled into the life of a Southern Hemisphere summer.  It’s hard to believe that back home in the UK it’s cold, wet and (politically) miserable….

We’re based at Coogee Beach in the eastern suburbs of sprawling Sydney, just a short walk from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) where I’ve spent most of my time, and an even shorter walk from sand and surf.  It sounds idyllic but one of the recurring features of the past week has been the amount of ash and charred leaves washing up on the beaches from the bush fires that surround Sydney at the moment:

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The region is in the midst of an extended drought and this has worsened the fire season.  The Australian Government seems intent on denying that it’s anything to do with climate change, though recently one of the state ministers has broken ranks.  That’s going to be little consolation this year but may mark the start of some changes in policies.  Let’s see.

During our time here Karin and I have facilitated a workshop on “Writing for a non-academic audience” which was attended by 17 UNSW postgraduate researchers.  I’ve presented a lecture on “Macroecology and macroevolution of plant-pollinator interactions: pattern and process at large geographical and temporal scales”…..

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….and spent a lot of time chatting with staff and postgrads at UNSW.  In addition, Angela Moles, Stephen Bonser and I have made initial progress with a short paper that I’m hoping will be ready to submit before we head back to the UK in early February.

Time to actually get out and see some of the habitats and biodiversity of this part of Australia has been limited.  But we’ve done a couple of hikes north and south of Coogee Beach, along cliff-top trails and boardwalks through remnant coastal heathland habitat, enjoying the novelty of watching rainbow lorikeets visiting the inflorescences of native Banksia trees:

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Yesterday we went further afield with a bird watching trip down to the Royal National Park (RNP) with Kew/NRI scientist Phil Stevenson (who is in the country for a couple of weeks on a flying visiting to speak at a conference and meet with colleagues); and Graham Pyke from Macquarie University, whose work on foraging behaviour of pollinators I’ve known for many years, but whom I’d never met.  Leading our trip was Steve Anyon-Smith, a professional bird guide who literally wrote the book on birding in the RNP.  Steve was great, highly knowledgeable, and a mine of information about the Australian environment.  As well as seeing about 67 bird species we encountered a host of other wildlife, and I collected data on wind and animal pollination for another set of species.  Here’s some images from that day:

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An orchid – Dipodium punctatum.

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The bower of a male satin bower bird.

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Not a great shot – it’s an Eastern dwarf tree frog.

2019-12-13 13.14.41 This is better – a very confiding Eastern water dragon along a well-used coastal trail.

Along that trail we also saw two forms of Banksia serrata – an upright one and a prostrate form – growing quite close together:

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I’ve seen a lot of birds visiting the inflorescences of this species but it’s suggested that mammals might be the main pollinators – the flowers have a very thick, yeasty smell.  Perhaps it’s both?

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An Australian fringe-lily.

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This is Epacris longiflora – thanks to Ryan O’Donnell for the identification.

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And of course we saw a lot of the iconic laughing kookaburras.

Steve was really concerned that much of the forest and wildlife in the NPR may be destroyed over the summer.  None of it has yet burned and, with temperatures due to rise enormously by next week, much of this habitat could be lost to fire by summer’s end.  I sincerely hope not, it’s too precious and beautiful to lose.  Vegetation in relatively light burns can reestablish itself given time, as we encountered in one of the Coogee remnants that burned a few years ago:

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But the bigger, hotter, more intense fires that are currently sweeping the state are something else entirely, and are alien to these forests.  Aboriginal Australians carefully managed their environment using regular, small burns, a practice that has been lost in most areas.

Fire in Australia is a theme that I keep coming back to.  A few weeks ago, during one of my second-year undergraduate grassland ecology lectures, I was  discussing fire as a threat and a management tool in grasslands.  I mentioned the situation in Australia with respect to Aboriginal use of fire and I asked my students what the purpose of their burning the grasslands was.  Someone suggested that it might relate to their agriculture.  My response then was “no” because Australian Aborigines were nomadic hunter-gatherers who never developed agriculture, which is what the received wisdom has been for decades.  The answer I’d give now is: “yes, quite probably”.  As so often is the case in science, the received wisdom was wrong.

My colleague at the University of New South Wales, Angela Moles, has loaned me a book called Dark Emu which draws on early European settler accounts, Aboriginal oral tradition, and recent archaeological discoveries to turn our understanding of the ecology of pre-European Australia on its head.  In particular, it seems as though the (then) very large Aboriginal population was much more settled and had developed a sophisticated form of agriculture that included the creation and exploitation of huge areas of native grasses for their grains.  This was all destroyed by colonial European agriculture within a short time period, before it was fully understood.  One of the arguments in Dark Emu is that these native grasses are much more suitable to the Australian climate than wheat and may allow more sustainable agriculture in the future.

If you want to know more, here’s a link to a recent review and interview with the author, Bruce Pascoe:


Strange as it might sound for a professor to say, I was happy to be wrong on this (or indeed any) occasion: scientific understanding only progresses by people being wrong and incorrect ideas being superseded by new knowledge.  I made a point of sending my students an email telling them about what I’d discovered.  It may well form a question on the test they have to take next term…..


Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Birds, Climate change, Pollination