A quick round up

Well November seems to have flown by! I’ve spent most of this month sitting in front of a computer wrestling with large data sets while trying to extend my knowledge and skills in R use.  I was, therefore, pleased when I got the chance to spend a morning looking around a couple of Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust’s sites. In the company of one of my supervisors and another researcher from Lincoln I went to look at the newly acquired Woodhall Spa airfield site. We were met by the knowledgeable and extremely enthusiastic Mark Schofield ( mschofield@lincstrust.co.uk) who introduced us to other colleagues on site. Mark told us that the trust had recently bought the site which was once the home of 617 Sqn RAF and that they had a raft of plans to restore it to its former glory. Thanks to the penchant for record keeping that exist among the British the trust has some amateur naturalists notes that describe how the site looked and what the species assemblages may have been at the end of the 19th century. Sadly the site has been quarried since the ’70s and it seems that insufficient thought may have gone into remediation when these operations began, as a result the soil types may have been mixed and soil chemistry is uncertain, this will make restoration a greater challenge. Despite this the trust have big plans for the site which could see it return to its former priority habitat status. I for one think that the trust deserve enormous credit for the vision that they have shown in taking the whole site in one go! I wish them well with it and hope that I might be able to get involved with a bit of plant species monitoring as the project evolves.

On the subject of our historic obsession with writing things down I followed my trip to Woodhall Spa with two days at the NBN conference held at FERA in York. This was a new thing for me, but I was pleased to be treated to a couple of days of interesting and informative talks from data gatherers and record keepers of all types. I was truly impressed by the recording skills of some of the junior recorders who have shown real dedication in the amount of records that they have logged in their short careers, this made me think that I should do something to facilitate my own children in making a start as recorders, a pledge which I kept when I took them to Treswell woods last week to have a go at identifying and recording some fungi. Ont the subject of Treswell the highlight of the NBN conference for me was listening to the indomitable Chris Du Feu regaling the audience with his tales of tree slug recording in the aforementioned wood and how he had managed to get this subject 7.5 minutes of R4 airtime, reducing the PM to 1.5 minutes into the bargain!

It was with a heavy heart that I read the details of the deliberate poisoning of the Masai Mara’s marsh pride of lions (made famous by big cat diary and other TV documentaries). According to National Geographic the local herdsman regularly graze cattle in the reserve under cover of darkness and the poisoning was a revenge attack after some cattle were killed by lions. Intuitively one would think that the Mara in general and these famous animals in particular would be a source of such revenue to Kenya that there would be a big incentive for local people to protect the wildlife but questions are (again) being asked about how much of this revenue trickles down to the local people.


Male Lion (Google images)

Perhaps the biggest problem with this type of crime is that it is completely indiscriminate; so vultures and other scavengers are also affected. The poisoning of lions is worrying given that it comes against the backdrop of a recent paper by Bauer et al. which makes the assertion that, African lions, already listed as critically endangered in West Africa, are in such decline that in Eastern and Central parts that they ” may no longer be a flagship species of the once vast natural ecosystems across the rest of the continent”. Worrying indeed!


A view from INTECOL and beyond.

This year I have been privileged to gain a place on the BES undergraduate fellowship and this allowed me to attend  the annual meeting which was held, in conjunction with INTECOL,  at the ExCel in London. It was particularly poignant since this is the centenary year

UFS 13/14 at INTECOL

UFS 13/14 at INTECOL

Things started a few days before conference with access to the useful online app which allowed remote viewing of the whole conference programme. The UFS met with Fran Sconce on Sunday afternoon and made our way to Docklands and the ExCel, a venue so large that it has 2 DLR stations. For us the afternoon was taken up with pre-registration workshops run by Karen Devine and the ever helpful Tom Ezzard  and his colleagues from the International Network of Next Generation Ecologists (INNGE). Meanwhile others attended parallel sessions on forest ecology and eco trips in and around London. This was all followed by a mixer which gave an opportunity to meet up with old colleagues or to be introduced to new people.

I don’t intend to talk about the specifics of the science here, there was too much for one thing and I need time to digest it all, so perhaps I will talk about some of that in forthcoming posts. So how did I find the conference? Firstly it was bigger than I could ever have imagined, I mean really big! It wasn’t the first scientific conference that I had attended but it was the first with multiple parallel sessions and it was difficult to decide where to go next at times. Some of the talks left me reeling and wondering if other delegates were similarly lost, I am a junior ecologist and some of the topics were very narrow and completely new to me. Having said that it was really friendly and people were easy to talk to.

I liked the way that the days were structured with two plenaries interspersed with symposia, workshops and poster sessions. Having the plenary up first gave an extra incentive to arrive punctually and usually got the mind working with something insightful or thought provoking. I thought the choice of plenary speakers was interesting especially on the final day with Martin Nowak presenting some, perhaps controversial, thoughts from his 2010 paper “The Evolution of Eusociality” in the morning and Tim Clutton Brock coming at the same topics from a different angle in the afternoon, this was an invigorating way to end the week and I remember thinking at the time that it was a shame that a number of delegates had obviously left early and so missed it.  Besides the plenary speakers I saw some truly inspiring speakers amongst whom Corey Bradshaw  and Barbara J Anderson  stood out as excellent communicators. However my top marks for presentation must go to Alexandra Sutton who, when beset with technical gremlins, presented her PHD research from memory with no AV support at all! There really was a lesson for early career scientists about the importance of honing presentation skills and this was driven home when Joel Cohen  spoke so engagingly  for 45 minutes about Taylor’s law. With this in mind I have booked a place on the mastering ecology symposium where I hope to get practice presenting my own research.

A further highlight was the way that twitter was used at the conference (#INT13) with plenary questions taken on the hashtag and many people (myself included) live tweeting from the parallel sessions. One downside here though was the lack of available charging points for hand held devices in the symposium rooms. Kathryn Luckett (@DExtER_Exp) used twitter to great effect to highlight the disparity between the numbers of male and female speakers at the conference , this was particularly noticeable during the panel debate where all 4 speakers were senior male scientists (Granted that one female was invited but dropped out through illness). Live tweeting turned out to be a real challenge; firstly a junior scientist needs to pluck up the courage to put their interpretation of the talk out there, then you need to get around the fact that you always thought it was rude to be using a mobile device while somebody was talking to you and finally you need to be able to do 3 things at once (listen, interpret and communicate). However once I got the hang of it I did find that tweeting helped me to engage more with the science and I was genuinely excited to see some of my tweets re tweeted!

I found the week to be thought provoking and inspiring in equal measure and the social events each evening were often second to none, particularly the final bash to celebrate 100 years of the BES on which the committee deserve hearty congratulations .  On a personal note I was also pleased to see Libby John, who has made a real difference at Lincoln University and who encouraged me to join the BES, receive an award for her service as erstwhile chair of the education committee.

I owe the BES a genuine debt of gratitude for a very memorable week, THANK YOU!

Next year’s meeting is in Lille, hope to see you there!

It is probably worth repeating here that the BES offers a years free membership if you join as a student.

From LSD through job hunting to hungry bears

I recently read a fascinating account by Mike Jay in Nature http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v497/n7450/full/497435a.html which celebrated the legacy of Albert Hoffmann who discovered LSD some 75 years ago. Jay describes how Hoffmann was searching for a cardiovascular stimulant and thought that LSD might do the trick. However the drug originally appeared to show little promise and so was shelved until Hoffmann recreated it on an apparent whim. Working with LSD Hoffmann noticed a feeling of dizziness and mild psychoactive effects and so decided to take what he thought would be an imperceptible 250 micrograms of the drug, before cycling home, to see if it was causing these symptoms. Jay goes on to talk about a wildly hallucinatory bike ride of a lifetime, complete with a “kaleidoscope of fantastic images”, the rest as they say, is history. Imagine writing the funding application in today’s climate! But I suppose a few free samples might help.

I’ve been thinking about open access recently with organisations like the BES (@BritishEcolSoc) making their journals open access after 12 months and I got to thinking how expensive it would be to  access  journals without institutional privileges. This led me to enquire whether the university ( http://www.lincoln.ac.uk/home/) might provide better facilities for alumni wishing to use electronic resources for research. It seems that the university is willing but at this moment in time the cost is prohibitive, personally I remain convinced that this is a facility that institutions should be offering to enable their alumni to remain current.

Laura Drake emails to say that The Mammal Society is holding its second student conference at Stoke on July 15, unfortunately I have a prior engagement but some tickets are still available here http://www.mammal.org.uk/student_conference.

For those who are graduating from university good luck with the job search and here is a list of UK wide vacancies in the environmental sector. http://www.environmentjob.co.uk/jobs

Finally  to  an article on declining elk numbers in Yellowstone by Middleton and coleagues : http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/280/1762/20130870. It seems that introduced lake trout have caused a decline in native trout, the introduced species spawns on lake bottoms out of the reach of hungry grizzlys. This may have caused a cascade of effects leading to increased grizzly predation on elk calves. Just when everyone thought that the re introduced wolves were responsible for declining elk numbers.

Managing woodland and other ramblings

A woodland ride

(Avon wildlife trust http://www.avonwildlifetrust.org.uk (c) Mike Martin)

I’ve read a fair bit lately on the pro’s and con’s of woodland management, particularly in respect of the relative value of coppicing. You can read a bit about coppicing here http://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/practical-guides/coppicing-an-introduction/ . In my view the jury is firmly out on the value of coppicing as a straightforward conservation tool but it does most certainly promote interest and get people talking, it also allows for the production of sustainable wood products and fuel, see here: http://www.wealdenheartwood.co.uk/woodland-blog/ but a glance at the ride in this wood in Avon shows that a mixed community effect can be achieved without destruction. I think that there should be a place for all management techniques (including doing nothing) and hopefully this will give the required mix of woodland habitats.

Recent times have seen me trying to get into using R for stats and modelling and last week I attended the Sheffield R users group http://www.meetup.com/SheffieldR-Sheffield-R-Users-Group/?scroll=true organised by Simon Cross where I saw some super 3d visualisations and heat maps in a talk by Jonathon Minton available here http://www.meetup.com/SheffieldR-Sheffield-R-Users-Group/pages/SheffieldR_meeting_-_29th_May_2013, any one who is any doubt about the power of R as a visual tool should check this out. I can also recommend this text which introduces R by Mark Gardener http://www.pelagicpublishing.com/statistics-for-ecologists-using-r-and-excel-data-collection-exploration-analysis-and-presentation.html .

I attended the BES symposium on the evolutionary ecology of infectious disease recently and found the speakers to be both interesting and entertaining, well worth the early morning train journey, I was also impressed by the live twitter feed provided by @Bkoskella.

Finally, does everyone know that the Society of Biology has a new home on the web? Their new webpage can be found at https://www.societyofbiology.org/ .