As a quantitative ecologist, I sometimes attempt to model species’ abundance and distribution changes in response to environmental change. Often these are species that, for one reason or another, we know a lot about. They may be high profile species of conservation concern, or have some economic or cultural importance. Some are simply model species that many people have studied because they’re easy to study because many people have studied them. Just as often though, we’re missing crucial data on one or more parameters. Frustratingly we don’t always have the time or resources to collect the new ecological or biological data required. Continue reading →
Understanding key habitat requirements is critical to the conservation of species at risk. For highly mobile species, discerning what is key habitat as opposed to areas that are simply being traversed (perhaps in the search for key habitats) can be challenging. For seabirds, in particular, it can be difficult to know which areas in the sea represent key foraging grounds. Devices that record birds’ diving behaviour can help shed light on this, but they’re expensive to deploy. In contrast, devices that record the birds’ geographic position are more commonly available and have been around for some time.
In their recent study entitled ‘Predicting animal behaviour using deep learning: GPS data alone accurately predict diving in seabirds,’ Ella Browning and her colleagues made use of a rich dataset on 399 individual birds from three species, some equipped with both global positioning (GPS) and depth recorder devices, others with GPS only. The data allowed them to test whether deep learning methods can identify when the birds are diving (foraging) based on GPS data alone. Results were highly promising, with top models able to distinguish non-diving and diving behaviours with 94% and 80% accuracy. Continue reading →
Evelyn Chrystalla ‘E.C.’ Pielou (February 20, 1924 – July 16, 2016) – a towering figure in ecology – was a key pioneer in the incorporation of statistical rigor into biogeography and ecology. She devised many important statistical hypotheses tests for spatial arrangements and patterns ranging in scale from individual plants in a field through to elevational zonation of vegetation to ranges of groups of species distributed over regional through to continental-scale ranges. Her research has provided the impetus for biogeographical analyses for generations.
She published ten books, including several long after her formal retirement in 1988. Her book Biogeography (1979) is a masterpiece. It covers historical biogeography (including inferences from cladograms, which were just beginning to be a hot topic at that time) and ecological biogeography with keen insight and treats topics like long-distance dispersal (that had largely been the subject of just-so stories) with her characteristic statistical rigor. Her books on mathematical ecology have a strong emphasis on models of spatial pattern and ways to estimate biodiversity, and her methods – including the famous Pielou‘s evenness index – are still widely used.Continue reading →
Movement ecology is a cross-disciplinary field. Its main aim is to quantitatively describe and understand how movement relates to individual and population-level processes for resource acquisition and, ultimately, survival. Today the study of movement ecology hinges on two 21st century advances:
Animal-borne devices/tags (biologging science, Hooker et al., 2007) and/or remote sensing technology to quantify movement and collect data from remote or otherwise challenging environments
Computational power sufficient to manipulate, process and analyse substantial volumes of data
Although datasets often involve small numbers of individuals, each individual can have thousands – sometimes even millions – of data points associated with it. Study species have tended to be large birds and mammals, due to the ease of tag attachment. However, the trend for miniaturisation of tags and the development of remote detection technologies (such as radar, e.g. Capaldi et al., 2000), have allowed researchers to track and study ever smaller animals. Continue reading →
Rachel Carson (1940) Fish & Wildlife Service employee photo.
I can’t think of a more inspirational and influential ecologist than Rachel Carson. Nearly fifty years ago she released a book called Silent Spring, which argued that pesticides such as DDT were cascading up through food chains causing the death or sterilisation of birds and other animals. The publication of her book provoked public debate, likely in part because it was serialised in The New Yorker, and led to a paradigm shift in US and (arguably) global pest control policy.
With the full support of the scientific community to verify her facts and arguments, she was able to defeat the chemical industry’s backlash and galvanise public opinion in her favour. The 2005 Stockholm Convention, in which DDT was banned from agricultural use, would likely have never happened if it were not for her work.
“In a post-truth world where trust in the scientific process is being eroded almost daily, Rachel Carson is a perfect example of how we can speak out and be heard while still being scientists.”
Ecological networks represent interactions between different biotic units in an ecosystem and are becoming an increasingly popular tool for describing and illustrating a range of different types of ecological interactions. Food webs – which provide a way to track and quantify the flow of energy and resources in ecosystems – are among the most studied type of ecological networks. These networks usually represent species (nodes) which are connected by pairwise interactions (links) and they play a central role in improving our understanding of ecological and evolutionary dynamics.
Historically, food webs described antagonistic relationships (e.g. plant-herbivore or host-parasitoid networks) but the approach has been developed in recent years to include mutualistic networks (e.g. plant-pollinator networks, phorophyte-epiphyte networks). The development of network ecology, including ever more sophisticated methods to analyse ecological communities, has been driven forward by an enthusiastic community of ecologists, theoreticians and modellers working together to enhance our understanding of how communities interact.
In this blog post, we’ll describe the important role played by female scientists in the development of network ecology, focusing on the contributions by two ground-breaking ecologists and also highlighting contributions from a range of other scientists working in this field. Continue reading →
Whether you are a laboratory or a field scientist, you have to be willing to get your hands dirty from time to time for the good of science. Sarah and I took that literally and spent a large part of our respective PhD projects handling faeces of free-ranging spotted hyenas from the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania.
Though faeces often are underrated, they are highly valuable material to work with because they conceal the most secret details about an animal’s social and sexual life. But having the privilege of holding a still-steaming poop is something you have to earn! Continue reading →
Susan Johnston: Mentorship schemes: there are many benefits from being able to have transparent, open and reciprocal discussion on career development, as well as the unwritten rules and experiences of academia. In smaller or less diverse departments, supervisors could encourage their female students to contact potential mentors (male or female) from other institutions. A quick Skype conversation every few months can benefit both the mentee and the mentor.
Carolyn Kurle: Don’t be daunted by the idea of how challenging a position in academia might be and don’t remove yourself from the path of academia just because you might be afraid of the potential demands. More and more support exists for mixing successful academic lives with also being a present and fulfilled parent and having a full life outside of research. And the more we expect that to be the case, the more it will exist as reality. Continue reading →
Nowadays animal telemetry tags for air-breathing divers come in all shapes and sizes. In four short decades tags for diving animals have gone from prototypes like the one built by Jerry Kooyman for deployment on Weddell seals – which consisted of a kitchen timer and a roll of graph paper – to a multitude of sophisticated electronic devices, fit for just about any animal or purpose you can think of.
All this progress has meant we can collect more information than ever before and do so remotely. Nevertheless, the lives of most divers remain a well-kept secret. For tags that transmit what they collect (as opposed to those that store data until they’re retrieved), the transmission stage is usually the bottleneck. This has driven the development of energy and time efficient software and data processing.
For a tag like the conductivity-temperature-depth Satellite Relay Data Logger (CTD-SRDL) built by the Sea Mammal Research UnitInstrumentation Group at the University of St Andrews – which was designed to spend months at sea – the problem boils down to one thing. Data are collected at a high resolution on-board the tag amounting to 100kB daily, but only 1kB of this information (at best) can be transmitted to the ground station. Therefore in preparation for transmission, the data need to be chosen carefully, compacted and fitted into several satellite messages of fixed size to ensure that enough useful information is received. Each satellite message can hold up to 248bits of information. To give an idea of how limiting this is, consider that this sentence would (without compaction) take up 896bits! Continue reading →
Yesterday we heard about the barriers to gender equality in STEM, as well as a few things that we’re surprised haven’t been fixed yet and some ideas on how improvements could be made. Today, we’re looking at where things are getting better.
What Changes, Initiatives, Actions etc. Have You Seen that have Impressed You?
Louise Johnson: One notable change for the better is that it’s now unacceptable to invite only men as your symposium speakers – it still happens, but you’d get deservedly yelled at for it. That kind of culture change seems inevitable, but it wouldn’t have happened without a lot of people sticking their necks out and complaining (and often being ignored or called whiny or jealous), so we should thank those people. I see more childcare grants available for conference attendance too, which is great.
Luísa Carvalheiro: Important steps I have seen in some countries are extending time limits to apply to fellowships based on the number of babies a woman has had, and to provide paid maternity leave for those financially dependent on scholar/fellowships. These are steps absolutely necessary in the real world. In an ideal world though, both men and women would have the same societal pressures and benefits. Continue reading →