Our last last day on Qikiqtaruk. Maybe.

Today is the 19th August – our fifth “last day” on Qikiqtaruk. Weather rules over life in the Arctic, and especially travel. Any planning is to be taken with a generous shake of salt as sunshine quickly turns into rain, fog rolls in and strong winds blow across the island. Our scheduled departure was on the 15th August – a stormy day that made the landing of the Twin Otter plane that was to take us to Inuvik impossible. Since that first last day, we have been living in a strange mix of being in the moment and planning ahead, stuck in the limbo of Arctic unpredictability.

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Pauline Cove, where we were based during our time on Qikiqtaruk, and where we spend all of our days waiting for the plane. The calm waters quickly turned to stormy waves as darker and darker clouds rolled in. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Now, five days later, I am sitting by the fire in Community House, once again awaiting news on whether or not our plane is coming. The sunshine days on Qikiqtaruk seem to be long gone, but today the weather is the best it has been in days. Dark, gloomy and rainy with the occasional snowflake, but still calm and relatively clear. Alas, that is not the situation in Inuvik, from where our plane is departing, and where fog has once again put a pause on our departure. It seems like today our departure is the most likely it’s been so far. My bags are packed, our field gear is put away in the warehouse, the floor is drying after our supposed final mop. These days of waiting, of not knowing whether or not we will leave, have given us extra time to take in the island, to wrap up extra field tasks, get crafty and reflect on our time here.

To check out Isla’s take on our final days on Qikiqtaruk in 2019, check out her blog post about what it’s like to be weathered in here.

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As the chill in the air grew stronger and stronger, the wood stove became our gathering place. From a drone lab to a hair salon, art and craft studio to just a place to warm up and talk, this room took many roles during our summer on Qikiqtaruk. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

15th August Thursday

On our first last day, we woke up to a radio message from the rangers – “Polar bear, polar bear across the bay!”. We rushed outside in our pajamas to take a look at the polar bear in the distance. A young male, we thought, that walked up and down the hills and along the beach. As the bear approached a peregrine nest, the raptors went up in the air and angrily circled around the bear. Later on, a pair of gulls displayed the same behaviour. We watched the bear from a distance for a while and then hid away from the winds. We knew we are bound to be staying here for longer than we planned, but the exciting wildlife made up for any alterations in our plans.

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In tune with life back at camp following a slower pace, the polar bear spent most of its time huddled up between tussocks, with the occasional stroll up and down the hills that muddled up the bear’s white fur. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

16th August Friday

On our second last day, we knew that there were no available planes and thus we slept in and took our time finishing packing and tidying up. The smell of delicious cookies filled up the house and we each took to whatever activities we enjoy but often don’t find the time for during the more active part of the field season. As blank pages turned into paintings, wood took the shape of a bowhead and we signed our 2019 plaque, the day quickly progressed. Every once in a while, we would go outside to check the hills and see what the polar bear is up to. And on one of those checks, we saw a bear-looking animal but much darker than the polar bear we had been observing during the day. A large grizzly bear had come up on the horizon of the same hills where the polar bear was. The polar bear was lying among the tundra tussocks and eventually the grizzly walked away in the other direction without much action, but it was still exciting to see two different bear species at the same time.

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Every year the walls and shelves in the buildings on Qikiqtaruk gain new plaques – pieces of wood and another materials found on the island, each signed with people’s names. For the 2019 Team Shrub plaque, we combined a piece of wood we thought looked like a whale with gagoon (birch bark, the best fire starter around here!) with a macrame-style shrub. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

17th August Saturday

On our third last day, we again took in the island, paused to reflect and adjusted to life in waiting. A big storm was once again raging across the island. The days were beginning to merge. We are not quite sure exactly what happened, but we do know that we did not see a polar bear.

18th August Sunday

On our fourth last day, we woke up early and after a look outside and no news of the plane, went back to bed. Painting, reading, word games with the youth from the Elders and Youth Program and wildlife sightings occupied most of our day. Winter felt particularly close that day, as the rain and wind chilled our bodies and made us run towards the fire after each venture outside. But for those that braved the outside world, a magical sight awaited. Four bowhead whales spent hours feeding close to shore in the cove – just where we usually run into the cold water after being in the sauna. That was the closest I have ever been to bowhead whales. I saw the bow-shaped markings giving them their name, their bodies curving as they rode the waves. We were all freezing, but the experience was more than worth it. Seeing the whales so up close and for quite a while as they went back and forth across the cove was a sight that resonated with everyone on the island. Whenever I turned my head away from the relentless wind, I saw people gazing at the whales and taking in the experience of being meters away from bowhead whales on a cold gloomy day in the Arctic.

19th August Monday

On our fifth last day, we woke up the earliest we have so far. Once again we packed and cleaned but there is still no sense of urgency in the air. Fog has descended across Inuvik and the plane is on standby. Time is both standing still, as we move back and forth from the kitchen to the fire and drink tea after tea, but it is also moving fast as each day of delay pushes our next destination and our lives beyond the island further into the future. We will continue waiting and at some point, thought it might not be today, we will rush to the airstrip, we will close our bags for real and leave Qikiqtaruk. It has been a summer wonderfully rich in discovery, wildlife encounters and emotions, and I am grateful for the chance to be here. As we have learned over the years, Qikiqtaruk can be a difficult place to leave, we have after all been trying for five days. But aside from the physical departure from the island, it is also hard for the experiences gathered here to leave my mind. And I know that in the months and years to come, I will often think back to my arctic summers.

Ten hours later, I am once again by the fire. As the day unfolded, we kept hearing about the fog at Shingle Point and that was the fog that ultimately pushed our flight once again. We filled our day with painting polar bears, writing letters and chatting with the rest of us here on the island. Moments ago, snow was falling from the skies in large snowflakes and the hills have quickly turned white. Though the snow is now almost all melted, the snowfall once again reminded us that summer is over and winter is quickly approaching. Though I’ve enjoyed many snowfalls around the world, this brief but intense snowfall on the island felt special. All my arctic experiences have been in the summer, and the white hills were a glimpse into what the island would look like after we are gone. It is now time to unzip my bags, take my sleeping bag out and settle in for another night on Qikiqtaruk.

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We went to bed knowing that there are a few snowflakes falling outside, but we didn’t quite expect to wake up to an island fully covered in white. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

20th August Tuesday

On our sixth last day on Qikiqtaruk, the snow returned early in the morning. The hills were completely blanketed by snow. The whole island shined brightly, the sun beams reflecting off the white surface. I went around Pauline Cove for a brief walk, but there was no haste in my steps. “We’re not going anywhere today.”, I had heard earlier. So having taken in the winter scenes, I went back to sleep. Three hours later, I emerged from my sleeping bag to make a cup of tea. Through the kitchen window, I saw someone pushing a wheel barrow full of boxes towards the airstrip. Could there be a plane coming after all? Stepping outside, the surrounding soundscape reminded me of spring. The sun was as blazing as it’s ever been this week and the sound of dripping water surrounded me. The snow was quickly disappearing and the familiar green tones of the tundra were coming back.

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A scene of winter wonder emerged as more and more snow fell to the ground, turning everything white as far as the eye could see. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

“The plane is leaving Inuvik!”, someone yelled from afar. It seemed unreal. It was day six of our prolonged departure from Qikiqtaruk and we were used to the plane not coming. And now it was on the way. The haste returned to our steps as we put away the cups from the tea we didn’t make and completed our final packing. With over five days of leaving preparations under our belt, we knew exactly what we need to do and very soon we were ready. A Twin Otter plane circled over the airstrip. And it landed. The first plane was for the people from the Elders and Youth program. It would fly back to Inuvik, refuel and then come back to pick us up on its second trip to Qikiqtaruk.

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One last look at Qikiqtaruk for 2019 as the Twin Otter took to the air. All of the rangers waved goodbye and in just over an hour, we were in Inuvik. Photo by Gergana Daskalova

It was a beautiful and emotional final day on Qikiqtaruk. A day that goes to show how quickly things can change in the Arctic. The afternoon was so different from the morning. We bid goodbye to the rangers, the people we met over our time on the island, and to Qikiqtaruk. As we boarded the Twin Otter and Qikiqtaruk’s outline grew smaller and smaller in the distance, I knew that wherever I go next, I will always remember my Arctic summer.

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As the sun broke through the clouds, we got some beautiful views as well as a window of time during which the plane could come pick us up. Photo by Gergana Daskalova.

Words, photos and videos by Gergana Daskalova

The Arctic’s hidden biodiversity

Rapid change is underway in the Arctic. We are heading to Qikiqtaruk – an island off the Yukon coast in Canada – to unveil the tundra’s hidden biodiversity – the elusive plant species that escape our sight yet might be key for shaping arctic ecosystems in the future.

The Arctic’s Hidden Biodiversity

Check out our expedition for stories and adventures from the North!

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Follow our journey as we discover stories of hidden biodiversity and unique experiences at the northern edges of the world.

#HiddenArctic

@gndaskalova @TeamShrub

This expedition is in collaboration with Team Shrub‘s expedition The Greening Arctic led by Dr Isla Myers-Smith. Keen to learn more about how climate change is transforming tundra landscapes and what that might mean for the whole planet? Check out The Greening Arctic!

Willow

Enter the world of willows. Journey to the south-west corner of the Yukon, to a land of glorious landscapes, shrubs and magic, where willows from the south and north live side by side… to a place that never existed (prior to 2014), to a time that is now (with a small blog posting delay). It is a world where a courageous team plants willows, living out an adventure that tests how shrubs grow in a warmer climate.

**Inspired by the 1988 movie “Willow”.**

An epic journey

A journey across altitudes and latitudes – from the shores of Kluane Lake up to the plateau above it and Pika Camp; from Qikiqtaruk to Inuvik to Whitehorse to Kluane again. The journeys have been long, but they’ve been fruitful. What’s left behind is a garden full of willows with different origins. Now, they share a common new home, but their journey is far from over.

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A time when a willow (or over 100) could tip the balance between environmental and genetic constraints

How do willows respond to increases in temperature? If a willow from the north is propagated in the south and starts experiencing the warmer climate there, it is freed of the environmental constraints of the harsher northern climate. But if it’s genes that determine how much a willow grows, the change in climate might have little effect. So which way does the balance tip? And like in most good movies, is there a twist that nobody saw coming? Stay tuned for more as we piece together the common garden discoveries we’ve made so far.

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A time for unlikely heroes

The heroes of this story are many, and it’s their combined work that has made the common garden what it is today. From many of Earth’s corners, people have come to the common garden and worked away – preparing the beds, moving soil and sand, planting, weeding, measuring, recording observations, the list goes on and on!

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A time when courage could be found where you least expect it

Along the shore of Kluane Lake as we carry buckets and buckets of water under the blistering sun. In the floodplain on Qikiqtaruk as we collect willow cuttings drenched by the rain. Up in the mountains where each step takes us potentially one step closer to finding an arctic willow specimen from which we can take a cutting to propagate in the garden. Along the path from Outpost Camp to the garden as we walk there wondering what the garden will look like. But really, when one most needs courage is when downloading data off HOBO temperature data loggers. Just when you’ve figured one data logger out, you move onto the next to find that it’s a slightly different model, needing different tools to open it up, different batteries and a different type of cable. After the great HOBO trials of 2017, this year we were ready with all the tools, batteries, cables and courage we imagined we could possibly need. There were trials, moments when the goal seemed unreachable, but just in the nick of time, on our last day in Kluane, we managed to install the right software for the special HOBO cable and we got the data! Courageous!

Not a time when good humans risked their lives

All risk assessment forms were filled on time, with all safety protocols carried out and of course, the best heroes are the ones with expedition-level first aid training.

If a willow dies not all hope for the future is lost

Sadness ensues when a willow succumbs to drought, heat, disease or fails to establish in its new home. Soothing the pain are all the other willows that continue holding onto life in the common garden. And when it comes to an experiment, there is value in death as well. As Haydn pointed out earlier in the summer after hearing about the drought in Kluane, regardless of the balance between life and death in the garden, there are still many great discoveries ahead.

DCIM101MEDIADJI_0669.JPG The “Isla Myers-Smith” bed – if you look closely you can see all the dead branches, but there are lots of new shoots as well.

A time of great adventure

Will the 2018 willows we brought from Qikiqtaruk and high up on the Kluane Plateau make it in the common garden? Now, a mere stick hints to all the potential shrubbiness of the new willows, but what is now a stick, can be a thriving shrub next year. Will that indeed be the case? How will our willows fare with the approaching winter? Only time can tell. All the best stories leave you hanging for at least 10 months, right?

From Team Shrub and the shrubs of Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island, Kluane Plateau and Pika Valley, comes the Common Garden. Stay tuned for scientific discoveries!

**Reposted from the Team Shrub blog.**

Text by Gergana
Video footage: Noah Bell, Isla Myers-Smith & Gergana Daskalova
Video editting: Gergana Daskalova

Arctic Above – A Team Shrub Photography Exhibition

Arctic Above – online photography exhibition

Our scientific research expeditions to the Arctic often reveal dramatic landscapes, exciting wildlife encounters and lots of natural beauty. We are always keen to widely share those experiences, and one way to bring the Arctic closer to people is through photography. This year, we are continuing our science & art outreach work (you can read more about our outreach events at the Edinburgh Science Festival last year here) by organising a second photography exhibition. This time, in addition to the physical exhibition, we also have an online exhibition, so that anyone with internet access can get a glimpse of Arctic environments, wildlife and ecosystem changes.

We present photographs of Arctic tundra landscapes and the plants and wildlife that inhabit them, captured as a part of scientific research expeditions to the rapidly warming Arctic. Images are captured from above using drones, helicopters or planes and on the ground as we hike out to our research sites. Some of these images are part of scientific datasets used to model the 3D structure of the tundra environment.

This work represents the interface between science and art, where the process of data collection has produced imagery that communicates the reality of global change and captures the patterns and beauty of remote Arctic ecosystems.

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You can explore our photography exhibition online here!

 

Conference adventures – the Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation Conference 2018

The first light was tentatively breaking through the Edinburgh clouds as we braved the early morning and ran towards the train station. Four people, one mission – catch an early morning trend to St Andrews to attend the 2018 Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation Conference! With unexpected delays and ticket machines not working, it was quite the achievement that we did actually make it in time. Team Shrub was at last year’s edition of the conference, which was great fun, so I was excited to take part again this year.

What made this conference extra special for me was that I got to share the experience with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable group of 4th year undergraduate students from the Ecology and Environmental Sciences programme here in Edinburgh. Struan, Jack and Fiona all took the Conservation Science course last semester and were very keen to learn more! It’s so exciting to share the research journey with students and then get to see them present the findings!

Struan presented his findings on how paths in Cairngorms National Park affect bird diversity – he did a great job at outlining the motivation behind the study, which was a great reminder for us to think about not only what we did, but also why we did it. Something to ponder at each stage of your analysis, from the very first formulation of research questions to writing up the results!

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Struan presenting his honours research on the effects of paths on bird diversity in the Cairngorms

I really enjoyed the SEECC 2018 conference. It was the first science conference I had attended and I found listening to what other people have been researching a very interesting experience, particularly as there was some research which overlapped with my own. My favourite part of the conference was the presentation I did on my dissertation which really gave me a flavour of what presenting your own scientific work is like.

Struan Johnson, 4th year Ecological and Environmental Sciences student

It was also my first time sharing some of the preliminary findings of my PhD! Exciting times. A nice coincidence was that the IPBES meetings were happening at the same time, so my post-conference reward for myself was going through the regional summaries for biodiversity change and its drivers.

 

Next up, Jack presented his dissertation project, which investigated the links between wellbeing and environmental threats in Tanzania’s Wildlife Management Areas. Jack was a great speaker on quite the difficult topic!

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Jack presenting the findings of his honours dissertation on how wildlife management areas influence human well-being

I thought the conference was very well run, full of interesting and insightful topics and the people presenting were very passionate. It was really nice being able to discuss a wide range of ecological issues with people with in depth knowledge and an encouraging platform for even an undergraduate student to present their work.

Jack Cunningham, 4th year Ecological and Environmental Sciences student

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Post-conference waffles and ice cream – a great ending to a jam-packed day of science!

I found it a thought-provoking day, and was interesting to hear about the variety of academic research across Scotland. I enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, with everyone attending (speakers or not) very approachable and eager to talk about current research!

Fiona Stephen, 4th year Ecological and Environmental sciences student

For me, a trip to St Andrews is not complete without ice-cream or fudge donuts… or a combination of the two! We had a great time at the conference and had a very jolly and inspired day full of science!

Coding Club in Ghent and a visit to the Forest and Nature Lab in Ghent

At the beginning of March, something strange happened here in Edinburgh – a snow storm! A proper blizzard and what very much looked and felt like real snow, real enough to cause a bit of traveling havoc! On my way to Ghent, it was Beast from the East – a standard snow storm really, but quite unusual for for the rainy Edinburgh winter. On my way back to Edinburgh, of course, came Beast from the East number two – a smaller snow storm, but still enough to make the ground go white. Though I had storms accompanying me all along the way, my journeys all went safely and even more excitingly, they were full to the brim with science!

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Edinburgh snowscapes. Photo by Sandra Angers-Blondin

Coding Club workshop for the EVENET network

Coding Club is growing! It’s quite exciting, and one of the best parts is learning about similar initiatives around the world – the joys and challenges of coding can definitely bring people together. At the Ecology Across Borders conference in Ghent last December, we organised a workshop on sharing quantitative skills among ecologists – seeing so many people keen to only get better at R, but also share their knowledge with others, was definitely one of the conference highlights for me. So imagine how exciting it was when I got the invite to go back to Ghent to lead a Coding Club workshop for EVENET – a network of ecologists from different institutions around Belgium.

The theme of the workshop was developing an efficient and reproducible workflow, so we squeezed in as much data manipulation, visualisation, modelling and then reporting using Markdown into a day-long workshop. If you’re keen to find out about the tidyverse collection of packages and how you can use them to streamline your research, you can check out the tutorial online:

GitHub, Tidyverse and Markdown – efficient data manipulation and visualisation and reproducible workflows

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Red deer populations across space and time – check out the tutorial here https://ourcodingclub.github.io/2018/03/06/tidyverse.html

The Forest and Nature Lab at Ghent University

I’ve been dreaming of visiting a research group – it sounded like something I would really enjoy! I love exploring university campuses and research buildings, checking out the posters on the walls, “feeling the science in the air”, learning about new research and getting to hear different perspectives on my work as well. Visiting the Forest and Nature Lab at Ghent University was indeed a great experience – I shared the preliminary findings of one of my PhD chapters for the first time (how does forest cover influence biodiversity trends?), I learned about a lot of cool forest research and of course, I find land-use history fascinating, so I was very intrigued by the post-agricultural forests in Flanders and the effect of time since last agricultural activity.

You can check out some of the papers below to learn more about the effects of land-use legacy on forest communities:

Hermy & Verheyen (2007) Legacies of the past in the present-day forest biodiversity: a review of past land-use effects on forest plant species composition and diversity, Ecological Research.

Perring et al. (2018) Global environmental change effects on plant community composition trajectories depend upon management legacies, Global Change Biology.

A particularly inspirational moment was getting to walk around the research forest near Gontrode. A research forest! As much as I like coding away with a cup of tea, it’s nice to complement that with seeing real-life plants and animals. I think strong academic communities are so valuable, and in Ghent, I got a small glimpse of such a community! We are all busy and at any point in time, we could be doing many different things. I will definitely remember the feeling of walking around the research forests with a group of PhD students, each showing me some of their experiments and sharing their science.

I had lots of time for daydreaming on my way back to Edinburgh, and I have to say, 12 hour delays sure feel more poetic when 1) you have code running in the background, so you don’t feel totally inefficient, and 2) you are dreaming of future research directions and field research stations!

The Ecology Across Borders conference

It is snowing in Ghent. Delayed or cancelled flights/trains have made travelling a challenge, but as the weather is settling at least a tiny bit, more and more people are arriving to the Ecology Across Borders in Ghent, Belgium. A snowman with a name badge greats those that managed to reach the conference venue. Outside, the cold wind pinches your skin and freezes your toes. Inside, the magic and excitement of science, plus a cup of tea or several, warms you up.

Here are my conference highlights so far.

Ecology Hackathon

On Monday, I joined the full day Ecology Hackathon. Our goal was to make an R package to download and harmonise differed gridded datasets to facilitate their use in answering research questions. We have written code and drafted the key goals of our package, and are excited to continue building on this.

Speed review from the BES journal editors

The speed review session was a great opportunity to get feedback from the editors of some of the BES journals. The session was very useful and  it was great to meet some of the editors and talk about the winning elements of a manuscript.

GBIF stall in the exhibition hall

I had a riveting discussion with Dmitry Schigel from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). I’m using GBIF data in my analysis of how rarity metrics (geographic range, mean population size and habitat specificity) affect population change, and it was fantastic to learn more about GBIF and how to best use GBIF data. We love open source data, and we are looking forward to continuing using GBIF – both in our research, and in teaching at Coding Club.

Catching up with people and meeting others for the first time

It’s exciting to see people you haven’t met with for a while, to chat about science and life, and share the conference experience. Equally, it is exciting to meet new people, to ponder a subject area you’ve never though about before, or to see your own area in a different light.

Taking it all in – three floors of people enthusiastic about science, a buzzing conference venue, beautiful photos spread around, and lots of inspiration – it is worth to stop running for a moment (though I find that hard!) to just breathe in the ecology magic.
For those of us that didn’t bring appropriate footwear and are walking around in socks, the conference very much feels like home! And what better home for an ecologist than one where we get to share and discuss our research, pick up new skills along the way and start new collaborations.

Workshop: Transferring quantitative skills among ecologists

Coding Club brings together people at different career stages to create a supportive environment for knowledge exchange and collective advancement of quantitative skills. We combine peer-to-peer workshops and online tutorials to promote statistical and programming fluency. In our EAB workshop, we used a tutorial on analysing big data in ecology to demonstrate how we can deliver quantitative training across academic institutions, after which we made our own tutorials and uploaded them to GitHub!

Interested in learning how to write coding tutorials and create a positive space for knowledge and skills exchange? All of our workshop materials are freely available online and we welcome future collaborations.

We were thrilled that many people attended and engaged with our workshop – it’s fantastic to meet more people keen to build a community around coding and quantitative training!

Talk: Does rarity influence population change in the UK and across global biomes?

Straight from our workshop, I ran to the Conservation science session to give my talk! An exciting jam-packed day!

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Species’ attributes such as rarity status, distribution and taxa are often assumed to predict population declines and extinction risk. However, empirical tests of the influence of rarity on population change across tax and biomes have yet to be undertaken, hindering proactive conservation. We combined open source data from the Living Planet Index, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and the IUCN to examine (1) the effects of rarity on rates of vertebrate population change in the UK, (2) the variation in global vertebrate population trends across biomes, and (3) the relationship between detected population change, species’ conservation status, and study duration.

I loved the 2016 BES conference in Liverpool, and the join conference in 2017 was no different!

One year of Coding Club

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This November, we are celebrating Coding Club’s first birthday – one year full of workshops, lots of code and many moments of joy as we finally figure out how to get our code to work and improve our quantitative skills together! It’s been such an exciting year, and we are thrilled to see many new faces joining us, as well as familiar faces returning workshop after workshop. We have developed 19 tutorials for our website on topics such as mixed effects models, using Markdown, and following a coding etiquette. We went to Aberdeen to co-lead a workshop with Francesca from the University of Aberdeen, and we also made it to the University of Edinburgh Impact awards!

But most of all, we are lucky to have many keen people, from different career stages and different disciplines, join us as we get better at coding by either coming to our workshops in Edinburgh or completing the tutorials online! It’s wonderful to have a supportive community where we can ask all of the R questions that pop into our minds, a place where we can all be learners and teachers, and help each other learn how to run models, make beautiful graphs and more!

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A map of the countries from where people visit our website!

Continue reading “One year of Coding Club”

Conservation in the Cairngorms

Five rainbows, ptarmigan, beautiful autumn colours and exciting chats with students and conservation practitioners – the Conservation Science course fieldtrip was a wonderful conservation-themed weekend! I’ve been dreaming of going to the fieldtrip for two years, and this year it finally happened!

I took the Conservation Science course as a student two years ago, and I loved it! The opinion piece was definitely one of my favourite assignments ever, and earlier this year, it got published in the Biosphere magazine – you can check it out here if you are keen to learn about conservation in the Australian Outback. I was also very excited about the course having a blog, so I couldn’t stop myself at writing just the blog post that was part of the course assignments, and wrote one more about how our obsession with rare species might be hampering conservation. Overall, I was very inspired and motivated by the course. I was also very bummed out, because I couldn’t go along to the fieldtrip back then, so I only got to hear the amazing stories and look at the beautiful photos. When I came back to the University of Edinburgh this fall as a PhD student, I was thrilled that not only will I get to do my dream research, but I will also be able to do my dream tutoring on the Conservation Science and GeoScience Outreach courses. As we headed out to the Cairngorms, well, you probably couldn’t see my enthusiasm and excitement, because I get motion sickness very easily, but once we arrived, I was all ready for adventure!

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Hiking at Glen Feshie

For me, the highlight of fieldtrips is that students and staff get to know each other, and explore and learn together. I loved that as a student, and I love it now as a member of the teaching staff. It was great to talk about conservation, academia, careers and life with the students – be it by the fire, on hikes, or just at breakfast, it’s wonderful to hear students’ thoughts. Aside from all the talking, we also got to play a game together!

The activity I led was a game called “Species on the move”.

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The cards for the game – you can download a pdf here.

Here is the premise: faced with climate change, habitat change, conflicts with human activities and naturally occurring environmental change, species have three options: adapt, move, or go extinct. We focused on moving, or changes in distribution ranges, as this strategy might be particularly relevant in Scotland, where climate change and land use change might force species to move. Each student drew a species card and joined one of two ecological communities. The students, each representing a species, lined up – their current habitats were no longer suitable, so they had to move. Species traits, human attitude and conservation support all influence the success of species on the move. I then called out various criteria for movement, like: “If you can fly, take one step forward”, “If fences can’t stop you, take one step forward”. Half way through we introduced lynx and beaver in our ecological communities, which then had effects on the success of some of the already present species.

The aim of the game was to find out which species first reach their new, more suitable habitat. As students were taking steps forwards and sometimes back (poor rare alpine plants!), we could already put together a picture of how intrinsic factors, like species’ traits, interact with extrinsic factors like land management and conservation interventions, to create dynamic ecosystems, where some species will be winners, and others losers, Afterwards, we heard from our winning and losing species, who all shared their strategies for success or what held them back. Haydn, our Scottish crossbill, shared why he was way behind Thomas, the Common crossbill. Or were those meant to be the same species? Afterwards all of us, winners and losers, had a warm cup of tea and ate delicious cake, a lovely finish to our adventures in the Highlands!

You can download the cards for “Species on the move” here.

The RSE Spotlight on Scotland’s Biodiversity Conference

Last week I took part in the Scotland’s Biodiversity conference at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. As conference go, there was knowledge and inspiration filling the rooms, there were questions I hadn’t pondered before, some answers that surprised me, some that re-affirmed what I already suspected. What was special about this conference though, was that I got to share the whole experience with an enthusiastic group of students from the Conservation Science honours course!

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For the students, it was their first ever conference, and it certainly was inspiring to see them chat to speakers and engage with wide-ranging conservation topics – from policy, natural capital, agri-environment management, peatland restoration all the way to the conservation action plan of the Scottish wildcat. Many jolly discussions followed, inspired by the talks we saw and the conversations we had with the speakers. 

Topics I found particularly interesting include whether conservation should be focused on species-specific measures or broader ecosystem functionality, as well as the effect of climate change on species richness-oriented conservation. For example, should one of conservation’s goals be to maintain and/or increase biodiversity (most often quantified through species richness)? Climate change might make Scotland more biodiverse, but we probably wouldn’t be calling that a conservation success story!

Eladio Fernandez-Galiano from the Council of Europe brought up the issue of Scotland potentially losing the species that make Scottish nature Scottish. Invasive species also made an appearance among talks, and it was intriguing to ponder whether species, colonising a certain area due to climate change and range shifts, should be classified as native or invasive. A particularly strong point of the conference for me were the three presentations delivered by pupils, part of the Scottish Natural Heritage’s ReRoute programme, and researchers and academics. It was fantastic to hear about young people’s views on conservation directly from them, and what excellent speakers they were – their presentations were clear, well-organised, and they answered questions from the audience like pros!

I was happy to present the results of my research with John Godlee and Isla Myers-Smith at the conference. It was my first time being part of a panel discussion, along with some of the other presenters, which was also fun!

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Overall, it was great to have a biodiversity event right here in Edinburgh, only a quick cycle away!