An Arctic summer

Carpets of purple, white, pink and yellow flowers, shrubs with shiny green leaves, amazing sunsets shortly followed by sunrises, lots of phenology and community composition data – there were so many magical moments during my time as a field assistant on Team Shrub on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island Territorial Park in the Canadian Arctic.

Here is a collection of photos and excerpts from blog posts – the titles include links to the full blog posts on the Team Shrub blog, where you can find many more exciting stories from the field!

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Mystical evenings on Qikiqtaruk

The power of stories

“I feel like we could be sharing stories for hours” said Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island Park ranger Ricky to me one evening after we had chatted about our homes and cultures out on the rangers’ porch. I walked back to Signal’s House with a smile on my face, hoping that we would continue the conversation. Time has passed since that evening, we have shared more stories, and on a rainy day like today, it feels like just the time to tell you one more – a story about stories.

From one end of the world to the other, stories about how the world around us is changing and about the connection between people and land make me feel at home. Some of those stories have been scientific stories: a clear structure, many numbers and frequent reminders of why those numbers are important. Scientific stories take many shapes – journal articles, reports, presentations, computer code, blog posts and more. Just like a good story, a good scientific paper takes you on a journey through what we know, what we don’t know, and what it all might mean. Sure, there might be more graphs and less pictures than your usual story, but as a whole, scientists are professional tellers of very precise and accurate stories about how the world around us is changing and what that might mean for people and places.

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Changes on Qikiqtaruk: Perspectives from Ranger Ricky Joe

There is no sense of time when you are travelling around here – you need a lot of patience. You need to know where and when to stop, when it’s safe to move on. Now everybody is always in a hurry, people travel to places quickly, but don’t get to fully experience them. There are journeys that used to take us days when I was little, and today we can travel to those places in hours. But you still have to remember to really experience the place, to stop and take it all in. My family and I, we just love travelling. It’s hard to say what we love about it – everything. The openness. We have all been travelling since we were very little. I was always with my grandmother and her dog team, helping her, hauling ice for fresh water and hunting.

Arctic smellscapes

Over the last two months we have often asked you to imagine what it would be like to be here with us in the Arctic. Through words, photos and videos, we have tried to bring the Arctic closer to you. So close that if you just imagine, you may well see it. You could even hear it. If you ponder the many changes occurring on Qikiqtaruk Herschel Island, from changes in vegetation structure and community composition to changes in what our life is like here, and listen again, you could hear a change. The Arctic – you can see it, you can hear it, and now, for a fuller experience, we present the Arctic smellscape of Qikiqtaruk, so you can smell it, too. It may have started as a joke, and there may or may not be talk of an Arctic taste- and touchscape, but for now, we do think that the Arctic smellscape represents a unique blend of aromas – smell alone could often reveal what is going on around us and how the landscape, and our day to day camp life, is changing.

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Beautiful light and the calming sight of moving ice in Pauline Cove, Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island Territorial Park

Qikiqtaruk Book Club based on Mark Vellend’s “The Theory of Ecological Communities”

Qikiqtaruk is a beautiful and inspirational place – science chats are particularly special when you can see, feel, hear and even smell your study system change as the growing season progresses. Out during phenology data collection yesterday, we saw that the spring flowers are fading and seed dispersal is beginning… summer is well under way. And this year, in addition spotting awesome wildlife, admiring magnificent sunsets and informally chatting about science in our remote Arctic field site, we have also started a book club!

Our book club discussions are summarised in four blog posts:

Qikiqtaruk Book Club Part I: Ecological communities in the Arctic

Qikiqtaruk Book Club Part II: Selection in the Arctic

Qikiqtaruk Book Club Part III: Speciation, drift and dispersal in the Arctic

Qikiqtaruk Book Club Part IV: Theory and high-level processes in the Arctic

Tangled up in plots

It was a long stretch of hot days, almost as hot as the hottest day of the year, when, amidst the buzzing of mosquitos and boat noises, dramatic words echoed through the tundra – hour after hour, one could overhear: “Three live, two standing dead”, “Salpul, seven point four”, “Wait, how many were dead?”, “Four dead.” The soundscape of point framing!

Team Shrub has been going back to the same 1 x 1m plots on Qikiqtaruk for six years, and this year I was lucky to be there for the poinframing joy! Half of the plots are in the Herschel vegetation type, and the other half in the Komakuk vegetation type. The communities there are very different, as we previously pondered in our first book club blog post after we started reading Mark Vellend’s “The Theory of Ecological Communities”. We have kept up reading the book in between fieldwork this summer, and point framing in particular has been a thought-provoking companion to our reading. We will be posting our second book club post soon, but until then, grab an imaginary pin flag, and picture yourself in the tundra landscape as we share with you our impressions from the 2017 point framing season.

 

The hottest day of the year and the epic storm that followed

Imagine yourself alone in the tundra. But imagine it isn’t quite as cold as you might think. The sweat is dripping down your back, the whine of mosquitos is incessant in your ears.  As you gasp for air while climbing the hill with your heavy backpack on, you just suck in the mosquito netting wrapped around your head.  DEET coats your skin with a shiny plastic-dissolving sheen as polymer bonds around you are destabilized and carcinogens seep into you through your skin.  This is the hottest day of the year on Qikiqtaruk.

Tough decisions have to be made on days like this – none more so that the perfect balance between having enough layers to avoid mosquito bites, but not so many as to boil in the humid Arctic heat. There came a point when the heat brought us to a naïve sense of bravery – the layers of clothing were coming off! Out of the frying pan, so to speak, and into the fire of mosquito bites and the eternal itching.

We are now all back from the Arctic and onto new adventures – I have started my PhD! My arctic summer, though, will always be a special adventure! Here’s to hopefully many more successful field season (and by that point, we might have gotten better at high-fiving)!

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Great determination, terrible execution!

Qikiqtaruk Book Club based on Mark Vellend’s “The Theory of Ecological Communities”

This series of blog posts was written on Qikiqtaruk-Herschel Island in the Western Canadian Arctic as part of Team Shrub’s island book club, aiming to read and discuss Mark Vellend’s 2016 book “The Theory of Ecological Communities” while we are out in the field, right next to the communities we study.  

Qikiqtaruk is a beautiful and inspirational place – science chats are particularly special when you can see, feel, hear and even smell your study system change as the growing season progresses. Out during phenology data collection yesterday, we saw that the spring flowers are fading and seed dispersal is beginning… summer is well under way. And this year, in addition spotting awesome wildlife, admiring magnificent sunsets and informally chatting about science in our remote Arctic field site, we have also started a book club!

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Plant communities on Qikiqtaruk

Our book club discussions are summarised in four blog posts:

Qikiqtaruk Book Club Part I: Ecological communities in the Arctic

Qikiqtaruk Book Club Part II: Selection in the Arctic

Qikiqtaruk Book Club Part III: Speciation, drift and dispersal in the Arctic

Qikiqtaruk Book Club Part IV: Theory and high-level processes in the Arctic

We thoroughly enjoyed reading “The Theory of Ecological Communities” whilst on fieldwork at our remote field site in the Canadian Arctic. There is particular charm in reading about a certain ecological process, be it high- or low-level, and then observing it in action moments later in the field. We look forward to continued discussions of the synthesis of ecological theory, but definitely agree with Mark that four high-level processes do shape community composition – selection, speciation, dispersal and drift.

From the Highlands to the high latitudes

Beautiful woodlands, bluebells in bloom, blue tit chicks hatching and growing and many exciting wildlife sightings across Scotland – a great way to spend the spring! I had a lovely field season collecting data on plant and bird phenology – I learned a lot, visited new places and had the chance to contribute to an exciting research project, led by Ally Phillimore. I loved spending time outdoors and really seeing spring arrive – leaf buds bursting and delicate new leaves emerging, whilst blue tits are dashing from branch to branch bringing in nesting material.

Along the many highlights of the field season was spotting a young fawn lying among a field of bluebells – there aren’t many fairy tales about field assistants checking nest boxes, but if one were to write such a story, it would certainly be set in an woodland just like this one.

Continue reading “From the Highlands to the high latitudes”

Science, outreach and coding galore in April

This April has been full to the brim with everything I love about science and academia – an art-science collaboration to give science outreach a creative spin, a conference to learn about cool research and meet new people, a coding workshop to spread our love for efficient coding practices and start new collaborations, a drone symposium to learn about the role of drone technology in advancing ecology, and finally fieldwork across beautiful woodlands in Scotland.

Team Shrub at the Edinburgh Science Festival

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I was very happy to help with the awesome outreach events Team Shrub organised for the Edinburgh International Science Festival. A great collaboration between scientists, science communicators (James Howie and the ASCUS Lab) and artists (Simon Sloan and Archie Crofton) resulted in a wonderful collection of photographs, data visualisations and fieldwork artifacts under the theme of “Arctic from Above” – Team Shrub’s first exhibition! You can still check out the exhibition in the Summerhall War Memorial Library before it closes on the 12th May!

Continue reading “Science, outreach and coding galore in April”

Graphic design tutorial (InDesign)

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Graphic design skills are a great addition to a scientist’s skills set, and making posters / slides / diagrams that are both informative and beautiful is super fun (and potentially a time sink if you get too carried away perfectly aligning images, but I think it makes a difference)!

Last week I lead a workshop for the Geoscience Outreach course on using Abode InDesign for science communication, and in particular, for making posters. As part of the assessment for the course and general promotion of outreach projects, students make a small poster that conveys the key messages of their outreach work.

What makes a good poster? We covered this topic by going on a beautification journey – first by looking at a poster from last year at different stages (bad, good, better), and then by working away on choosing colour schemes, layouts and making diagrams. The workshop was very fun, as usual I loved teaching, and I’m very happy to have contributed to the Geoscience Outreach course!

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How can we use Adobe InDesign to make beautiful and informative posters? Check out the tutorial online to find out!

Meta-analyses, theory and stylised facts in ecology

What is a theory? Is ecology theory-poor and if yes, why? What are the paths to theory development in ecology? Meta-analyses? Data syntheses? Big data? Stylised facts? These are the questions we set out to discuss during  this week’s lab meeting. We extended an invitation to EdGE (the EdEN discussion Group for Ecology) to get more diverse perspectives, and shared our thoughts on these topics, largely inspired by Dynamic Ecology’s posts about stylised facts in ecology and why meta-analyses in ecology often don’t lead to theoretical insight. We also added in Marquet et al.’s 2014 paper “On Theory in Ecology” into our discussion, bringing forward many thoughts on the different types of theory in ecology, and whether theory in ecology is possible to begin with.

We defined theory as a hierarchical framework of postulates, based on a number of assumptions, and leading to a set of predictions. As we set out to do our research, we can use theory as the base on which you build your hypotheses – and if you find enough support for your hypotheses, in time they might grow into a theory, thus prompting more hypotheses – a self-propelling cycle of gathering empirical evidence and developing theory. But is the cycle broken, with empirical evidence (or its synthesis) becoming an endpoint that prompts little theoretical insight?

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We had a mix of undergraduates, PhD students and PIs in the room, and it was interesting to see how our thoughts varied based on our career stage. We started off with a quick quiz on 1) whether we had heard of the theories covered in the paper before, and 2) whether we had thought deeply about them. Here are the results!

Continue reading “Meta-analyses, theory and stylised facts in ecology”

Out of sight, out of mind

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My opinion piece on conservation issues in Australia’s Outback recently got published in the BIOSPHERE magazine! I first pondered Outback conservation challenges during the Conservation Science course I took in the last year of my degree, for which I wrote an opinion piece about the destructive effects of invasive species on marsupials such as the yellow-footed rock wallaby. Since I can’t resist the opportunity to make things look pretty and be more creative with scientific assignments, I made mine look like a magazine article – thanks to some great encouragement afterwards, telling me that my opinion piece could become a real magazine article, I decided to pursue this direction, and here it is!

You can read the opinion piece here.

How can we deliver conservation outcomes in areas that are out of sight and out of mind for so many? Recognising the importance of the communities that have always seen the value of the vast interior of Australia, and re-connecting them with their land, can empower people not only to identify environmental degradation, but also to actively engage in mitigating it.

The role of β-diversity in conservation

What indicators should we use in conservation? Why do different biodiversity indicators seem to disagree? What is the role of beta-diversity in conservation? This week we extended our usual TeamShrub lab meeting to hold a discussion on two recent biodiversity papers, as part of the EdEN (Edinburgh Ecology Network) EdGE (EdEN Discussion Group for Ecology) meetings. We talked about what are the best indicators to assess biodiversity change, whether there is a place for β-diversity metrics in guiding conservation actions, and why do different indicators of biodiversity change seem to disagree with one another.

We all had an interesting and jolly discussion, inspired by the following papers:

Socolar, Jacob B., et al. “How should beta-diversity inform biodiversity conservation?.” Trends in ecology & evolution 31.1 (2016): 67-80.

Hill, S. L.L., Harfoot, M., Purvis, A., Purves, D. W., Collen, B., Newbold, T., Burgess, N. D. and Mace, G. M. (2016), Reconciling Biodiversity Indicators to Guide Understanding and Action. CONSERVATION LETTERS, 9: 405–412. doi:10.1111/conl.12291

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As we work in the Arctic, we appreciated how the papers recognised the fact that regions which are not particularly rich in biodiversity still deserve to be on the conservation radar.

We started off by identifying what β-diversity is and how we measure it – we discussed temporal β-diversity (how has species composition changed through time) and spatial β-diversity (commonly known as just beta-diversity, how do communities differ across space – i.e. measures of similarities, etc.) and what are the implications of using β-diversity metrics in conservation. We can mostly agree that one of the goals of conservation is to maximise biodiversity, but what diversity? Alpha, beta, gamma?

Unlike α-diversity (diversity at the local scale) and γ-diversity (diversity at the global scale), β-diversity does not refer to a spatial extent, but to the comparison between communities, and as such is is often used as an indicator of biotic homogenisation.

Calculating β-diversity allows us to understand biodiversity loss from a different perspective – we can look beyond species richness increasing or decreasing, and think about whether communities are becoming more similar, and what the implications of that might be for ecosystem functionality and the provision of ecosystem services. Nevertheless, β-diversity has to be used carefully – if two communities are both changing, β-diversity might stay the same (i.e. they might still have the same amount of species in common), but their current species composition might have changed. We also discussed how increasing the spatial extent of agri-environment management (or other conservation measures) might not always have the desired outcomes – such actions might decrease β-diversity by favouring the same set of species over large spatial extents. Communities can shift in many ways, which don’t necessarily fit in the biodiversity loss toolbox we most often use.

Can we use beta-diversity to link local scale observations to global scale inferences on biodiversity trends?

We thought that this is theoretically a great idea, but logistically, there are difficulties in going from the local scale observations to inferences on γ-diversity – gaps in the data, understudied regions, etc. We also pondered the dangers of promoting rare species at the expense of common species, and also what about disturbance-tolerating species? It is easy to say that e.g. Plot1 has lost/gained one species, but hard to have confidence in how the world has changed over time. Perhaps it is β-diversity that will help us link our local-scale observations to inferences on the global scale.

2016 – adventures in Scotland, Bulgaria and Australia

img_01592016 was the year I really fell in love with science, research, and academia. I’ve always been a big fan of universities, but in 2016  I found out I not only like going to uni, I also don’t really want to leave it anytime soon. Having a very positive honours year and getting to do awesome fieldwork and RA work afterwards made me even more sure that I want to do a PhD. 2016 was also the first year for which I didn’t have a set plan – mostly because I was too busy to make one – but also because I wanted to become better at adapting to uncertainty (e.g. where will I live next month?) and change. Although I often felt like nothing is happening, except models running and running, 2016 was actually full of meaningful, challenging, and inspiring experiences!

Continue reading “2016 – adventures in Scotland, Bulgaria and Australia”

My BES Annual Meeting highlights (2016)

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Christmas did indeed arrive early – though I ate plenty of mince pies all through December, the real festive and jolly spirit didn’t hit me till the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting in Liverpool. 2016 was a great year for dreams coming true, one of them being presenting a talk at the BES conference. At the conference last year in Edinburgh, I thought that it is just so cool, and I made a wish to someday present myself. I tend to be rather impatient when it comes to achieving goals, this being probably the one time that I reached a target sooner than I thought I would. Continue reading “My BES Annual Meeting highlights (2016)”