Googling for Ecological Answers: Using the Morphic Web Application

Post provided by Gabriella Leighton

Online Images: A Treasure Trove of Ecological Data

In the proclaimed ‘information age’, where answers are available at the click of a button or a swipe of a finger, we have become accustomed to the ability to get an almost instant grasp of any topic. Other fields are already making use of this wealth of easily accessible online data, but biologists and ecologists tend to let it slip by. However, this attitude is slowly beginning to change. Some ecological and evolutionary studies are emerging that have used the internet to gather data – through online citizen science projects (e.g. Evolution MegaLab) or databases (e.g. using Google Trends) – but few have used existing data, particularly publicly available data from image repositories.

We were curious to apply the concept of using existing images on the internet to a fascinating visual biological phenomenon: colour polymorphism (or the occurrence of multiple discrete colour phenotypes). To do this, we planned to exploit an existing penchant people have for uploading photographs of animals to the Internet.

Our search phrases included the common and scientific name of the species, as well as a location-specific term

Our search phrases included the common and scientific name of the species, as well as a location-specific term

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Movement Ecology: Stepping into the Mainstream

Post provided by Theoni Photopoulou

“Movement is the glue that ties ecological processes together”
from Francesca Cagnacci et al. 2010

CTD-SRDL telemetry tags being primed for deployment. ©Theoni Photopoulou

CTD-SRDL telemetry tags being primed for deployment. ©Theoni Photopoulou

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:

  1. 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
  2. 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

Just snap it! Using Digital Cameras to Discover What Birds Eat

Post provided by Davide Gaglio and Richard Sherley

Digital photography has revolutionised the way we view ourselves, each other and our environment. The use of automated cameras (including camera traps) in particular has provided remarkable opportunities for biological research. Although mostly used for recreational purposes, the development of user-friendly, versatile auto-focus digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras allows researchers to collect large numbers of high quality images at relatively little cost.

These cameras can help to answer questions such as ‘What does that species feed its young?’ or ‘How big is this population?’, and can provide researchers with glimpses of rare events or previously unknown behaviours. We used these powerful research tools to develop a non-invasive method to assess the diets of birds that bring visible prey (e.g. prey carried in the bill or feet) back to their chicks. Continue reading

Scat Collection Protocols for Dietary DNA Metabarcoding

DNA dietary analysis is a non-invasive tool used to identify the food consumed by vertebrates. The method relies on identifying prey DNA in the target animals’ scats. It’s especially useful for marine animals such as seals and seabirds as it is difficult to watch their feeding events.

In the video below, Julie McInnes describes scat collection protocols that she (along with Rachael Alderman, Bruce Deagle, Mary-Anne Lea, Ben Raymond and Simon Jarman) developed to optimise the detection of food DNA in vertebrate scat samples. The authors use the shy albatross to demonstrate their new methods.

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Testing the Effects of Underwater Noise on Aquatic Animals

Post provided by Karen de Jong

Most people assume that research equipment is expensive and complicated. But, it doesn’t need to be and the noise egg is a perfect example of this. It consists of a watertight container (as used by scuba divers) and the buzzer from a cellphone and does exactly what it says: it produces low frequency noise. This allows researchers to test the effect of noise on underwater life. It is a small, simple and cheap device that anyone can build.

Why Test Effects of Noise?

A painted goby in front of his nest ©K. de Jong

A painted goby in front of his nest ©K. de Jong

Underwater noise is rapidly increasing due to, for example, boat traffic and offshore wind farms. This can lead to stress for animals and difficulties in communication. Just as people have a hard time communicating in a noisy pub, animals may struggle to get their messages across when background noise is high. A nice description of how animals use sound and how noise may affect this can be found at www.dosits.org

While there is some knowledge on the effect of noise on large aquatic animals, we still know very little about how fish and other small aquatic animals are affected. Such knowledge is vital for management of protected areas. It’s also important to know whether wind farms and boat traffic can affect reproduction in populations of underwater resources such as fish and mussels. The answers to these questions are likely to be species specific, so we’ll need data on a large number of species in different habitats. Continue reading

From Tree of Life to Web of Life: How Google Images Can Help Ecologists Study Evolution

Below is a press release about the Methods paper ‘Just Google it: assessing the use of Google Images to describe geographical variation in visible traits of organisms‘ taken from the British Ecological Society.

Black sparrowhawks are either completely dark or have a white breast. ©Oggmus

Black sparrowhawks are either completely dark or have a white breast. ©Oggmus

Animals caught on camera by amateur photographers and posted on the web could become an important new tool for studying evolution and other ecological questions, researchers from South Africa have found. Their study – the first of its kind – is published today in Methods in Ecology and Evolution.

Colour polymorphism – when a species has two or more colour types – has fascinated biologists since Darwin. The occurrence of these different colour types often varies geographically, providing a useful way of studying how different colour morphs – or phenotypes – evolve.

But the fieldwork needed to collect these data is time consuming and expensive, so Dr Arjun Amar and his student Gabriella Leighton from the University of Cape Town wondered if ecologists could use the thousands of animal images posted on the internet instead. Continue reading

Tips for Publishing Methods Papers in Ecological Journals

At the 2015 Eco-Stats Conference at the University of New South Wales there was a Q&A panel discussion of tips for authors publishing methods papers. The panel was chaired by Methods in Ecology and Evolution Associate Editor David Warton. It included Jane Elith (winner of the Methods Recognition of Achievement award), Associate Editor Matt Schofield and former Associate Editor Shinichi Nakagawa. There was also a late appearance, straight off a long haul flight from China, by Doug Yu (another current Associate Editor).

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The Arborist Throw-line Launcher

Collecting leaves or seeds from tall trees is a difficult task that many plant physiologists, ecologists, geneticists and forest managers encounter repeatedly. In a series of videos on the Methods in Ecology and Evolution YouTube channel, Kara N. YoungentobChristina Zdenek and Eva van Gorsel demonstrate how to use the arborist throw-line launcher, which significantly simplifies this task. This new way of collecting seeds and leaves from tall trees is explained in their Applications article ‘A simple and effective method to collect leaves and seeds from tall trees‘. As this is an Applications paper, it is freely available to everyone.

Basic Techniques for the Arborist Throw-line Launcher

The first of the three videos is a basic overview of the method. In this tutorial, the authors teach you how to find the ideal branch, how to use the throw-line launcher and go through some important safety information. Continue reading

The Overlooked Commotion of Particle Motion in the Ocean

Below is a press release about the Open Access Methods paper ‘Particle motion: the missing link in underwater acoustic ecology‘ taken from the University of Bristol, the University of Exeter and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries  & Aquaculture Science (CEFAS).

Fish and invertebrates predominantly or exclusively detect particle motion.

Fish and invertebrates predominantly or exclusively detect particle motion.

A growing number of studies on the behaviour of aquatic animals are revealing the importance of underwater sound, yet these studies typically overlook the component of sound sensed by most species: particle motion. In response, researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Exeter and Leiden and CEFAS have developed a user-friendly introduction to particle motion, explaining how and when it ought to be measured, and provide open-access analytical tools to maximise its uptake. Continue reading

The Smart Nest Box: Stepping into the World of Cavity-Dwelling Animals

Post provided by MARKÉTA ZÁRYBNICKÁ

The SNBox in the field

The SNBox in the field

Seeing is better than being told, isn’t it? In recent years, video recording and analysis has become a successful non-invasive method for collecting biological data on many species. At Project Smart Nestbox (a collaborative project between the Czech University of Life Science Prague and the Czech Technical University in Prague) we decided to push these methods forward to allow for the long term surveillance of cavity or box-nesting species. We developed and tested the Smart Nest Box (SNBox) – a system that overcomes some of the usual limitations found in video recording fieldwork: data storage capacity, power source and insufficient light. As it’s National Nest Box Week in the UK, Methods in Ecology and Evolution have asked me to write a blog post about it. Continue reading