Pod of bottlenose dolphins observed in Cockburn Sound, Perth, Western Australia.
Wildlife isn’t usually uniformly or randomly distributed across land- or sea-scapes. It’s typically distributed across a series of subpopulations (or communities). The subpopulations combined constitute a metapopulation. Identifying the size, demography and connectivity between the subpopulations gives us information that is vital to local-species conservation efforts.
What is a Metapopulation?
Richard Levins developed the concept of a metapopulation to describe “a population of populations”. More specifically, the term metapopulation has been used to describe a spatially structured population that persists over time as a set of local populations (or subpopulations; or communities). Emigration and immigration between subpopulations can happen permanently (through additions or subtractions) or temporarily (through the short-term presence or absence of individuals).
How individuals could distribute themselves within an area.
Many researchers, breeders and hobbyists need to know sex of their animals. Sometimes it’s easy – in sexually dimorphic species you only have to look. In other species or juveniles it’s often not so straightforward though. And it’s often impossible – but sometimes essential – in embryos or in tissue samples. Determining sex from DNA is the most practical option, or sometimes even the only possibility, in these cases.
Molecular sexing is routinely used in mammals and birds, but until now it has only been available for a handful of reptile species. Many people didn’t believe that this situation would improve considerably any time soon. But why? Continue reading →
Heard but not seen, populations of forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) are rapidly declining due to ivory poaching. As one of the largest land mammals in the world, this species is surprisingly difficult to observe in the dense forests of Central Africa, but their low frequency rumbles can be recorded. With the autonomous recording afforded by passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) though, we have a window onto forest elephant ecology and behaviour that’s providing data critical to their conservation and survival.
The diverse ways that PAM can contribute to conservation outcomes is growing and while still underappreciated, the availability of relatively inexpensive recorders, increased power efficiency, and powerful techniques to automate the detection of signals have led to an explosion in use. In 2007 there were only about 20 published papers using PAM techniques, but since then over 400 papers have appeared in peer-reviewed journals.
Spectrogram of two forest elephant rumbles. Horizontal line shows the limit of human hearing.
Essentially, PAM is the automatic recording of sounds in a given environment, often for long periods. The trick, and often greatest challenge, is to find the signals of interest (bird calls, elephant rumbles, gunshots) within the recordings. With these signals we can quantify abundance, occupancy and spatial or temporal patterns of activity. Particularly in landscapes or ecosystems where visual observation is difficult (e.g. oceans, rainforests, nocturnal environments) PAM may be uniquely capable of delivering informative and unbiased data. Because PAM is a relatively new method but of considerable interest across the disciplines of ecology, behaviour and conservation, there is huge interest in refining the sampling and statistical methods needed to deal with the peculiarities of acoustic data. Continue reading →
The Global Pollen Project is a new, online, freely available tool developed to help people identify and disseminate palynological resources. Palynology – the study of pollen grains and other spores – is used across many fields of study modern and fossil vegetation dynamics, forensic sciences, pollination, beekeeping, and much more. This platform helps to facilitate cross/multi-disciplinary integration and discussion, outsourcing identifications, expertise and the sharing of knowledge.
Pollen’s Role in Plant Conservation
Successful conservation of rare, threatened, and valuable plants is dependent on an understanding of the threats that they face. Also, conservationists must prioritise species and populations based on their value to humans, which may be cultural, economic, medicinal, etc. The study of fossil pollen (palaeoecology), deposited through time in sediments from lakes and bogs, can help inform the debate over which species to prioritise: which are native, and when did they arrive? How did humans impact species richness? By establishing such biodiversity baselines, policymakers can make more informed value judgements over which habitats and species to conserve, especially where conservation efforts are weighted in favour of native and/or endemic flora. Continue reading →
Camera traps are a useful means for researchers to observe the behaviour of animal populations in the wild or to assess biodiversity levels of remote locations like the tropical rain forest. Researchers from the University of St Andrews, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA) and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) recently extended distance sampling analytical methods to accommodate data from camera traps. This new development allows abundances of multiple species to be estimated from camera trapping data collected over relatively short time intervals – information critical to effective wildlife management and conservation.
Remote motion-sensitive photography, or camera trapping, is revolutionising surveys of wild animal populations. Camera traps are an efficient means of detecting rare species, conducting species inventories and biodiversity assessments, estimating site occupancy, and observing behaviour. If individual animals can be identified from the images obtained, camera trapping data can also be used to estimate animal density and population size – information critical to effective wildlife management and conservation. Continue reading →
This issue contains three Applications articles and two Open Access articles. These five papers are freely available to everyone, no subscription required.
– MatlabHTK: A software interface to a popular speech recognition system making it possible for non-experts to implement hidden Markov models for bioacoustic signal processing.
–PrimerMiner: The R package PrimerMiner batch downloads DNA barcode gene sequences from BOLD and NCBI databases for specified target taxonomic groups and then applies sequence clustering into operational taxonomic units to reduce biases introduced by the different number of available sequences per species.
–BarcodingR: An integrated software package that provides a comprehensive implementation of species identification methods, including artificial intelligence, fuzzy-set, Bayesian and kmer-based methods, that are not readily available in other packages.
Understanding how biodiversity is distributed and its relationship with the environment is crucial for conservation assessment. It also helps us to predict impacts of environmental changes and design appropriate management plans. Biodiversity across a network of local sites is typically described using three components:
alpha (α) diversity, the average number of species in each specific site of the study area
beta (β) diversity, the difference in species composition between sites
gamma (γ) diversity, the total number of species in the study area.
Despite the many insights provided by the combination of alpha, beta and gamma diversity, the ability to describe species turnover has been limited by the fact that they do not consider more than two sites at a time. For more than two sites, the average beta diversity is typically used (multi-site measures have also been developed, but suffer shortcomings, including difficulties of interpretation). This makes it difficult for researchers to determine the likely environmental drivers of species turnover.
We have developed a new method that combines two pre-existing advances, zeta diversity and generalised dissimilarity modelling (both explained below). Our method allows the differences in the contributions of rare versus common species to be modelled to better understand what drives biodiversity responses to environmental gradients. Continue reading →
This issue contains two Applications articles and one Open Access article. These three papers are freely available to everyone, no subscription required.
–Solo: Solo audio recorders are inexpensive, easy to construct and record audible sound continuously for around 40 days. The paper also has a video tutorial explaining how to assemble the required hardware and comes with a companion website with more information.
–The third dimension: A novel design to obtain three-dimensional data on the movements of aquatic organisms at depths of up to 140m. The set-up consists of two synchronised high-speed cameras fixed to two articulated arms and can be used for any underwater applications that require synchronized video recordings of medium- to large-sized animals.
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 →