Author Interview with Susan Young: Wildlife Photography Fieldcraft

This unique book describes a straightforward system for how to successfully locate wildlife, the most difficult aspect of wildlife photography. Photographing the stunning natural world around us can be a challenging process. Not only does getting the perfect shot require a complex mixture of skill and luck, but there is little practical advice available on how to find the wildlife you’d like to photograph. While patience and persistence have to come from you, being equipped with the right fieldcraft knowledge, offered in this book, can increase your chances of getting the results – and the special moments – you are looking for.

Individual chapters offer guidance on how to photograph birds, mammals, butterflies and dragonflies, as well as reptiles and some of our more elusive species. Various habitat types are discussed, along with tips on equipment, technical specifications and guidance suitable to both newcomers and more experienced wildlife photographers. While sharing some of her most successful and beautiful images, Susan Young also gives useful examples of when things didn’t quite work out – reflecting on how things could have been done differently to get a better outcome.

Susan Young speaks with us about why she chose to write this book, her process for researching each chapter and why wildlife photography is so important for engaging the public with the environment and conservation.


Your new book, Wildlife Photography Fieldcraft, is a unique guide to how to successfully locate wildlife. What drew you to wildlife photography and why did you choose to write this book?

I have had a keen interest in nature from an early age. I originally took up (digital) photography for landscapes, but it was a natural progression to wildlife photography so I could keep a record of my finds. When I started with wildlife, I found it very difficult to find suitable subjects, especially the less common ones, and of course many mammals are nocturnal. I studied many books on wildlife photography, but they all seemed to concentrate on photographic techniques and gave little or no information on how to find wildlife. I had written books before on subjects not previously covered, so decided to write the book I wished I had been able to find when I was looking.

You mention in this book that a lack of knowledge on how to find wildlife to photograph may be just as risky as providing too much information, could you expand on this?

This is related to disturbance. If photographers know very little about the subject of their photographs and do not understand the sensitivity of wildlife, they could disturb a bird, for example, and cause it to abandon its nest, or frighten a deer so it runs off and becomes injured.

On the other hand, if too much information is given out, particularly of a detailed location, photographers can flock to the area in large numbers. This has happened with rare birds, for example, and the birds have become very distressed.

Ptarmigan by Susan Young

This guide is broken up into chapters covering different species groups, all of which are richly detailed, covering descriptions, diet, breeding, habitats, population estimates and more. What was your process for researching the different chapters, and why did you choose to go further to cover topics such as how to make a portable hide and thermal and dynamic soaring?

The whole focus of the information was on what factors influenced where, when and how to find wildlife. Population estimates and habitats, for example, influence where the subject might be found in a broad sense. Breeding and its rituals have a great effect on when certain species are most active and thus most likely to be seen. Description, diet and habits are more detailed indicators allowing the photographer to fine-tune the search, for example. Goldfinches like thistle seed (diet), they are often in flocks (habits) and have distinctive colouring (description), so a photographer situated near a patch of large thistles, at the right time of year, could have interesting photographs of goldfinches balancing on thistles and interacting with each other.

My process was to think of each category for different species and, based on my experience, record the facts for each species and describe how to use them to find wildlife. I then studied reliable sources to add further detail and confirm that what I already had was accurate.

Young Roe jumping by Susan Young

Hides are extremely valuable as they allow the photographer to get close to nervous or rare species without disturbance. Portable hides are particularly useful. I found it difficult to get a flexible, sturdy, inexpensive portable hide that would be comfortable if sat in for some time. My design was based on the plastic pipes I had seen on an American trip, and can be tailored to the individual very easily, and is strong but not too heavy.

Photographing birds in flight, especially birds of prey, is very difficult. By understanding thermal and dynamic soaring, the photographer is equipped to predict the best position to photograph a bird in flight i.e. when the bird is moving more slowly and at the correct height.

How important do you think wildlife photography is in increasing public engagement with the environment and conservation?

Wildlife photography is hugely important as photographs can convey an emotion or fact better than words, and in particular can illustrate features or situations in a compelling, thought-provoking way, or simply attract by their beauty.

Sand Martin and chicks by Susan Young

Your case studies provide a wonderful insight into your photography process. Are there any species that you haven’t yet photographed but would love to?

Pine Martens are at the top of the list. They are beautiful and intelligent but, at present, rare in England. Beavers are another species I would like to photograph, and hopefully, this will become easier if they are introduced to other parts of the UK.

Do you have any current or future projects that you would like to tell us about?

At present I am developing interactive online mini-courses for the Mammal Society using photographs, videos and interactive features. The aim is to attract and engage with more people to gain their support in the quest to learn more, and use the knowledge to try to halt the decline of UK wildlife. I am also developing a course to encourage the use of CCTV systems to monitor wildlife.


Wildlife Photography Fieldcraft
By: Susan Young
Paperback | August 2022 | Pelagic Publishing

 

 

 

 

This Week in Biodiversity News – 21st September 2022

Climate change

A new report shows that Australia is funding just one-tenth of its fair share of global climate action. The study by Oxfam and ActionAid Australia is calling on Australia to increase its climate finance commitments to $3bn, ahead of COP27 this November. Currently, Australia has only committed $400m a year between 2020 and 2025 for international climate funding. For Australia to meet its fair share of the dedicated $100bn fund agreed upon in 2009, its contributions must be $4bn annually from 2025.

Both wild and farmed Atlantic salmon are threatened by warming waters. The climate crisis is warming the world’s rivers and oceans. As warmer water contains less oxygen and simultaneously speeds up the salmon’s metabolism, increasing the need for oxygen, warmer temperatures are reducing salmon fitness, impacting their abilities to adapt to stressors. Studies by the North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organization have shown that, from 2007 to 2016, only a single salmon survived its first year from 2,000 fertilised eggs, whereas prior to 1990, it would only require 1,000 fertilised eggs.

Atlantic salmon parr by E. Peter Steenstra/USFWS via Flickr

The UN has warned that the world is ‘heading in the wrong direction’ as the impacts of climate change worsen. The 2022 United in Science report has shown that there are five times as many weather, climate and water-related disasters as there were 50 years ago. The last seven years (2015-2021) have also been the warmest on record, with a 93% chance that at least one of the next five years could be hotter than 2016, the warmest year on record. To meet the 1.5°C goal set out in the Paris Agreement, current emissions reductions need to be seven times higher than they are now.

Research

A study has created a new framework to change how sharks, rays and chimaera species are considered in the design of protected areas. This will hopefully help provide the protection they need in the face of extinction. Sharks are apex predators and play a vital role in the functioning of balanced ecosystems, shaping communities and ensuring biodiversity. They’re threatened by fishing practices, either as targets or as by-catch, as well as negative public images which can lead to culls. By ensuring that the most up-to-date information is provided to governing bodies, policies and protected areas can be designed to ensure the protection of these species.

Hariotta raleighana, a long-nosed chimaera, by NOAA Ocean Exploration via Flickr

Satellites are now able to measure the thickness of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean all year round. Previously, spacecraft struggled to measure the state of sea ice in summer as the presence of surface meltwater confused instruments. Now, using ‘deep learning’ techniques, scientists are able to get reliable observations across all seasons. This will help to improve monitoring the impacts of climate change, while also aiding weather forecasting.

Researchers have found the world’s oldest heart preserved inside a fossilised prehistoric fish.  The 380 million-year-old heart was made in Western Australia and captures a key moment in the development of the heart found in all back-boned animals. Soft tissues are far less likely to be preserved than bones but the minerals of the Gogo rock formation preserved many of the fish’s internal organs, including its liver and stomach.

Conservation

A fungal outbreak is threatening the tricoloured bat with extinction in the US. White-nose syndrome, which disrupts the crucial winter hibernation of bats, is ravaging tricolour bat populations, as well as populations of a dozen other North American species, including the northern long-eared bat. Both of these species have been recommended for endangered designation by  The US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Female tricoloured bat by NABat via Flickr

Two adult grey wolves, along with two cubs, have been spotted in Oregon’s Cascade mountains, giving hope that the federal protections restored earlier this year are aiding the recovery of this endangered species. After decades of hunting across the US, Oregon recorded only 14 individual wolves at the end of 2009. Since then, following protections from the Endangered Species Act, the population has grown to 175 individuals in 2021.

Cheetahs have been released in India for the first time, 70 years after they went extinct. Eight cheetahs were flown into the northern Indian city of Gwalior from Namibia. They have been released into a fenced enclosure in Kuna National Park for their quarantine period over the next month, before being released into a larger enclosure containing natural prey. Their release into the wild is controversial, particularly as a population boom of another of India’s predators, the tiger, has led to increased conflict with people sharing the same areas.

Pollution

A Coalmine wastewater spill has turned a creek in Royal national park, Sydney, to black sludge. This is the third coal pollution incident involving Peabody Energy’s Metropolitan mine this year. The Environment Protection Agency of New South Wales have collected water samples and are conducting further assessments to determine the ecological impacts of this event. There is concern that this pollution may impact the state government’s plans to reintroduce platypuses to the area.

Book Review: Goshawk Summer: The Diary of an Extraordinary Season in the Forest

Winner of the James Cropper Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing 2022. 

Chronicled in Goshawk Summer: The Diary of an Extraordinary Season in the Forest, wildlife cameraman James Aldred is given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to film a goshawk nest during the first few months of the pandemic. Having just completed a migration himself, returning home after filming a cheetah family in Kenya, he was commissioned to begin filming in the New Forest. However, after the adventures of finding a suitable nest and planning how to set up the shoot, lockdown began. The everyday hustle and bustle of everyone going about their daily lives stopped. In the spring months of 2020, with everyone staying at home, no cars on the road, the absence of aeroplane vapour trails crisscrossing the sky, an eerie quiet descended. And perhaps most importantly, lockdown meant no more visitors to the New Forest – except for James.

After harpy eagle attacks, being chased by venomous snakes, and almost being knocked out of a tree by an elephant, you’d think Aldred wouldn’t have much excitement for our native wildlife. However, the awe that Aldred has for not just goshawks but for many of our species shines through in this book. For all its named ‘Goshawk Summer’, this book reads like an ode to the threatened aspects of Wild Britain. It is a whistle-stop tour of our countryside, from instructions on the management of heathland and the place muntjac have in our ecosystems, to the plight of the Dartmoor warbler, pine martens, and the curlew, and even the cultural relationship we have with foxes.

Northern goshawk chick by Andrey Gulivanov via Flickr

The wealth of experience he has gained over 25 years of working in the industry is clear throughout this book. Passages are filled with rich tidbits of wildlife encounters, such as the time he found all six native reptile species in one morning. Each sighting and mention of a species is accompanied by a short tale or a piece of history. Often, these sightings are compared to Alred’s experiences with more exotic ones, such as the pine marten with the yellow-throated marten in Borneo, a group of tumbling fox cubs with the cheetah family in Kenya, and the goshawk as “our very own mini-harpy”. It is a welcome reminder that UK wildlife can be just as magical and mysterious as that of far-flung places.

Goshawk by Andy Morffew via Flickr

Written from field notes kept at the time, the internationally experienced wildlife cameraman dives into the wildlife of his childhood haven of the New Forest. He describes the lack of human activity and disturbance as a glimpse into paradise, which, through his engaging observations, we too can experience. The goshawks are the true highlight of this book, as Aldred gives us a window into the seemingly timeless forest away from the jumble and stress of modern life. Following the weeks and months of Aldred’s shoot, we see the day-to-day workings of a goshawk nest and the trials and tribulations of a species once hunted to extinction. While watching the development from eggs to fully fledged juveniles, Aldred tells the history of this previously highly persecuted species.

As lockdown eased and travel was allowed, the spell is broken and it seems that suddenly everyone is using natural spaces. Car parks and roads fill and forest paths become alive with walkers, music and cyclers. Unfortunately, while many reported this as the public’s increasing appreciation for our natural landscapes, Aldred has a different opinion. With the pandemic always running in the background, he documents the impacts of the sudden rush to reenter the world. From the increase in noise, litter, risky barbeques, irresponsible drivers and dog owners, the newfound peace of the New Forest seems shattered. The forest is described as a habitat that “has been abused for centuries” and Aldred reaffirms the emerging narrative that we should step back to give nature space to breathe and recover. Throughout Goshawk Summer, Aldred issues a strong call for people to be more conscious and considerate of their behaviour in nature, particularly around nesting bird season.

Returning in February 2021, almost eight months after watching the goshawk chicks fledge, Aldred once again encounters the goshawk female. He notes a feeling of elsewhereness within the forest, of outside being England and inside “somewhere much further north”. Goshawk Summer mirrors this, providing a fascinating glimpse into the perspective of a wildlife cameraman and a welcome break from the clutter of the outside world. This book was awarded the James Cropper Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing 2022.


Goshawk Summer: The Diary of an Extraordinary Season in the Forest
By: James Aldred
Paperback | June 2022

 

 

 

 

The NHBS Introduction to Habitats: Sand Dunes

Sand dunes in New Brighton, Merseyside, UK by Andrew Mason via Flickr

Coastal sand dunes are habitats created by sand, seashell fragments and other sediments that are moved by wave and wind action along a coastline or beach until they become trapped above the strandline. This usually occurs where vegetation is growing as their roots and leaves help to bind the sand together, preventing the sand from being blown away by the wind. There are several different types of sand dunes, categorised by their position on the shoreline, age, morphology and stability:

  • Embryo dunes: The youngest dunes at their earliest stage of development, usually closest to the shore and may still be covered by high tides. This area usually has high salinity and is a very dry environment with rapid drainage and a lot of exposure. 
  • Mobile dunes: These are dunes that are no longer covered by the highest tide but are still affected by wind; sand gets blown from the beach onto, over and away from these areas. 
  • Semi-fixed dunes: This is where vegetation cover has become more continuous with fewer areas of bare sand.
  • Fixed dunes: These are dunes that have very limited free space, with few areas of bare sand and almost continuous vegetation. 
  • Dune slack: The low-lying depressions between sand dunes. These areas can often become filled with fresh or brackish water, creating small wetlands known as interdunal wetlands or interdunal ponds. These areas can warm quickly as they’re often very shallow, providing an ideal habitat for many invertebrates. 
  • Dune scrub: A later successional stage, where a stable dune has been colonised with scrub species. These areas can continue to develop into dune-heath and older woodland. 

Sand dunes can be rich in wildlife and are important habitats for birds, reptiles, invertebrates, a variety of plant species, lichens and fungi. This is particularly the case in older, more stable dune habitats. They are classified as UK BAP Priority Habitat and several Priority List species have been recorded utilising sand dunes.

What species can you find here?
Flora

Differences in flora diversity can be found depending on the position, age, morphology and stability of the dunes. Sand dunes that are still inundated at high tide can be dominated by halophilic (salt-tolerant) plants, whereas dune slack areas may be filled with fresh groundwater, allowing them to support several freshwater plant species. Areas of low stability will most likely see lower plant diversity, with the community present dominated by pioneer species. More stable dunes are generally dominated by woody plants and have higher diversity.

Sea sandwort (Honckenya peploides)

S. Rae via Flickr

This is one of several pioneer species usually found in embryo dunes, as it is highly stress-tolerant. These plants allow sand to begin to accumulate, raising the top of the dune above the high tide level, while also adding organic matter to the sand through dying and decaying. This allows the sand dune to better retain water, allowing other plants to colonise the area.

Marram grass (Ammophila arenaria)

Jeremy Halls via Flickr

This is a dune building grass as it is tall and robust, with matted roots, therefore it is very effective at trapping and stabilising sand. It can help to form very high mobile dunes as it grows at a rate of 1m per year. It is usually the dominant plant on mobile dunes and is a familiar sight on many of our coasts. By stabilising the sand and adding nutrients through its dead leaves, this plant can allow sand dunes to be colonised by many other plant species.

Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

Aecole2010 via Flickr

As sand dunes become more fixed and vegetation cover becomes more continuous, the area can be very species-rich. Many wildflowers, including harebells, can be found there, providing a food source for species such as invertebrates. Due to the wide range of environmental factors in these habitats, such as wind, salinity levels and availability of shelter and fresh water, there is often a huge variety of wildflowers.

Harebells, also called bluebells of Scotland, are tough and resilient plants, living in dry, open areas such as sand dunes.  While their flowering period can vary, it’s usually from July to November in the British Isles, providing a vital source of nectar for bees during the autumn.

For more examples of wildflowers, check out our guide to UK wild flower identification.

Silver birch (Betula pendula)

Andrew Gustar via Flickr

The final successional stages of sand dunes include colonisation by woody plants, creating dune scrubs and, finally, deciduous woodland. These woodland are often lower in species diversity, as woody species out-compete others, but the habitat will remain stable for extended periods, barring any disturbance. The type of vegetation present in the climax stage is determined by a number of factors, such as climate, exposure, soil pH, grazing level and management type. Birch trees are one of the woody species that can colonise sand dunes, particularly acidic dunes with open areas for young birch trees to grow.

Fungi

While fungi are usually associated with damper habitats, there is a variety that can be found in sand dune habitats, such as the earthtongue fungus (Glutinoglossum glutinosum), dune stinkhorn (Phallus hadriani) and several puffball species. There are also rare species that can only be found in sand dunes.

Dune waxcap (Hygrocybe conicoides)

Lukas Large via Flickr

This species of waxcap occurs mainly on short grass in coastal sand dune habitats, such as on the edges of dune slacks. Waxcaps, fungi in the genus of agarics, or gilled fungi, are usually brightly coloured fungi with dry to waxy caps. They are mainly associated with unimproved grasslands, though outside of Europe they are more commonly found in woodland. Dune waxcaps resemble the blackening waxcap (Hygrocybe conica) when young, but older dune waxcaps only darken slightly, usually just on their stem, unlike the blackening waxcap.

Collared Earthstar (Geastrum triplex)

Yankech gary via Flickr

While collared earthstars are most likely found in woodlands, particularly those with a high level of leaf litter, they can also be found on sand dunes. This star-shaped fungus initially looks like a ball, similar to a puffball, before splitting open. Other earthstars, including the dwarf earthstar (Geastrum schmidelii), can also be found in sand dune habitats, particularly mature sand dune systems. They’re often found in colonies with several fruitbodies growing together.

Fauna

Sand dunes support a diverse range of fauna species, many of which are specifically adapted to live in these dynamic habitats. Similarly to shingle beaches, which will be covered in another article, this area is a key habitat for several ground-nesting birds, such as the Ringed Plover and Skylarks, grazing species such as rabbits, and invertebrates such as bees, digger wasps and other insects.

The red-banded sand wasp (Ammophila sabulosa)

Volkmar Becher via Flickr

Sand wasps reproduce by hunting caterpillars, paralysing them using their sting and burying them in burrows with the sand wasp’s egg. The females dig their burrows in sandy ground, with a nearby area of vegetation that would support their prey. Areas of sand dunes can be rich in invertebrate species, particularly where diverse vegetation is present.

Northern Dune Tiger Beetle (Cicindela hybrida)

David Tyler via Flickr

This rare beetle hunts on bare sand, preying on ants, spiders, moth larvae and flies. As they need areas of open, moving sand, they are less likely to be found in older, more stabilised sand dunes. Therefore, lack of management allowing succession and reduced sediment deposition due to development or flood defences reduce the availability of suitable habitats. Conservation efforts to restore mobile sands and remove areas of scrub are helping to provide more habitats for the northern dune tiger beetle. 

Sand lizard (Lacerta agilis)

xulescu_g via Flickr

Sand dunes support a variety of vertebrate species, including the sand lizard, one of the UK’s rarest reptiles. Their distribution is restricted to a small number of sites, such as protected heathlands and sand dunes. They require sunny habitats with vegetation for shelter and undisturbed, open sand to lay their eggs. Their numbers are impacted by habitat loss but there are several conservation efforts working towards increasing their populations. These involve a combination of habitat restoration, monitoring, reintroduction and encouraging beneficial policies and practices.

Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus)

Female. Andy Morffew via Flickr
Male. Caroline legg via Flickr

Several birds of prey use sand dune habitats as hunting grounds due to the presence of ground-nesting birds, lizards and some grazing species such as rabbits. Sparrowhawks can be found across Britain and Ireland, mainly in gardens, woodland and urban settings, but they can also be found on sand dunes, particularly if woodland is close by. They prey mainly on small birds, but they have also been recorded taking bats.

Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax)

gailhampshire via Flickr

Once extinct in Britain, Choughs now have a growing population on the Cornish and Welsh coasts, as well as a few other spots around the UK. They hunt invertebrates and larvae in the exposed sandy soils of sand dunes, using their long, curved bills. With only a small population in the UK, it is important to maintain suitable areas of habitats, therefore a number of projects are reintroducing grazing species to dunes. These species help to maintain areas of open ground and short grass, preventing sand dunes from becoming scrubland.

For more information on other species that may occur in sand dune habitats, including reptiles, coastal birds, waders and other mammal and bird species, check out some of our other guides to UK species identification.

Threats

The main threats to coastal sand dunes are development, recreational use, flood defences, falling water tables, climate change, invasive species and poor management. The development of housing, industry and areas such as golf courses can result in the damage or destruction of sand dune habitats. This, along with recreational use, such as excessive pedestrian and vehicular use, can increase levels of erosion and modify vegetation. Fragile sand dune habitats can be altered, reducing their stability and their ability to support diverse wildlife.

Poor management allows encroachment by shrubs and trees that, if left unchecked, could turn sand dune habitats into woodland areas, which can impact their suitability for specialist species. Flood defences can impact the natural processes of sediment removal and deposition, which can prevent sand dunes from developing or growing. These areas can become depleted if there is not enough sediment deposited to replace the amount removed by wind or wave action. The creation of harbours and other coastal structures can also disrupt natural sediment processes. Alternatively, these structures can also prevent sediment removal, causing a build-up of sediment.

Further threats include invasive species, such as cordgrass (Spartina anglica), which can dominate sand dunes, reducing the abundance and diversity of native plant species and reducing the number of animals that the area can support. Climate change can also threaten this habitat, as increasing intensity and frequency of storms can impact how sand dunes are formed. Sea-level rise, in combination with development, can also reduce the amount of area available for this habitat to form; this is termed coastal squeeze.

While grazing is used as a method for controlling over-stabilisation and succession, overgrazing can also impact sand dunes. It can reduce the development and spread of vegetation, preventing sand stabilisation and, therefore, reducing the diversity and abundance of the species the habitat can support. This also allows sand dunes to become depleted by wave or wind action, particularly where structures such as flood defences and development have reduced sediment deposition.

Conservation

To manage the impacts of these threats, many sand dune areas have been given Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designations, which control the amount of development that can occur. Soft engineering approaches to flood defences including beach replenishment, the restoration of stabilised sand dunes and managed realignment, where areas are allowed to be inundated by the sea, can often be a more natural approach to reducing the impacts of waves compared to hard engineerings, such as sea walls and breakwaters. These can allow the natural process of sediment removal and deposition, facilitating the development of new sand dune environments.

As mentioned, sand dunes are subject to natural habitat succession, often ending in a stable deciduous woodland habitat. To maintain sand dune habitats, encroachment by woody species must be controlled and areas of open, mobile sand should be created as this prevents soil development and, therefore, over-stabilisation.

Areas of significance

Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve, Northumberland

Braunton Burrows, North Devon

Holkham NNR, North Norfolk

Kenfig NNR, Glamorgan, South Wales

Forvie NNR, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Further reading

The Biology of Coastal Sand Dunes

Coastal zones are becoming increasingly topical as they face relentless pressure from a number of threats. This book provides a comprehensive introduction to the formation, dynamics, maintenance and perpetuation of coastal sand dune systems.

 

Sand Dune Conservation, Management and Restoration

This book deals with the development of temperate coastal sand dunes and the way these have been influenced by human activity. Options for management are considered and the likely consequences of taking a particular course of action highlighted.

 

Field Guide to Coastal Wildflowers of Britain, Ireland and Northwest Europe

This field guide covers more than 600 species of wildflowers and other coastal flora found in Britain and Ireland, and coastal mainland north-west Europe. Detailed species accounts describe the wildflowers, grasses, sedges and rushes that occur on the coast or in abundance within sight of the sea.

 

Wildflowers of the Sefton Coast

This book describes the typical wildflowers associated with each of the Sefton Coast’s main habitats from the saltmarshes and ‘green beaches’ to the sand-dunes; the latter showing a sequence of successional stages running inland, from the newly-formed strandline and embryo dunes, through mobile and fixed-dunes to older woodland and dune-heath.

 

Beaches and Coasts

A new edition of a unique textbook that provides an exhaustive treatment of the world’s different coasts, with a focus on climate change sea-level rise. Seeking to better educate students and readers about the sustainability of coasts and coastal environment, this exciting book offers enlightening coverage of coastal geology, processes and environments.

Beach and Dune Restoration

This new edition continues the theme of the first edition: the need to restore the biodiversity, ecosystem health, and ecosystem services provided by coastal landforms and habitats, especially in the light of climate change. This will be valuable for coastal scientists, engineers, planners, and managers, as well as shorefront residents

 

Sea of Sand: A History of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

The Great Sand Dunes sprawl along the eastern fringes of the vast San Luis Valley of south-central Colorado. Sea of Sands is the definitive history of the natural, cultural, and political forces that helped shape this incomparable landscape.

This Week in Biodiversity News – 5th September 2022

Climate change

This summer was England’s hottest on record, tied with 2018. The average temperature in June, July and August was 17.1°C. Four out of the five warmest summers have occurred since 2003, with records stretching back to 1884. Hot and dry conditions are causing river levels to drop, crop damage and wildfires across England.

East Yorkshire has launched a climate change consultation, inviting residents and those who work in the area to contribute to the local authority’s response. Attendees will get a first look at the draft Climate Change Strategy developed by East Riding of Yorkshire Council, which will highlight opportunities for future action. A survey has also been created to gather people’s views on climate change from across the authority area.

Research

Ecologists are using the latest dental scanning technology to study young coral, monitoring coral size and growth. This method is said to have reduced surveying time by 99%. Dr Kate Quigley, a senior research scientist, has developed a new non-destructive method for rapidly and safely scanning coral, using an ITero Element 5D Flex dental scanner. Because coral and teeth are both calcium-based, the scanner works effectively, allowing scientists to measure thousands of tiny coral quickly, accurately and without any negative impacts on the health of the coral.

Conservation

A flock of European bee-eaters have migrated south for the winter after successfully hatching chicks in the UK. The arrival of the breeding colony in Trimingham, Norfolk, in June was described by the RSPB as a “red alert for global warming,” as they are more commonly found in the southern Mediterranean and northern Africa. Nesting bee-eaters are occurring in the UK as hotter, drier summers become more common. While they eat a variety of flying insects, including many bee species, this small colony is not expected to have had any impact on local bee populations.

European Bee-eater by Francesco Veronesi via Flickr

Water voles have been reintroduced into the New Forest, two decades after they became locally extinct. In 1998, 7000 American Mink were released from a fur farm by animal rights activists, inadvertently resulting in the loss of the local population of endangered water voles. The Environment Agency released 50 captive-bred water voles into an area near Ringwood, joining a few wild voles relocated from Salisbury. Another 50 will be introduced to the same area next spring, with the hope that the population will reach 1,000 by 2027.

A rare sea slug, Babakina anadoni, has been spotted in Cornwall, marking only the second time this species has been seen in UK waters. The first sighting was made by a Seasearch volunteer just a few weeks ago off the Isles of Scilly. Their larval stage is thought to have drifted in on ocean currents, with the adults surviving due to favourable conditions. Only a few individuals have been spotted around the world, mostly in warm waters off the west coast of Spain, as well as Portugal, France, Brazil and the Caribbean.

Babakina anadoni by Carlos Fernandez-Cid via Flickr

Policy

A ban on offshore oil and gas exploration by Shell has been upheld by a South African court. Due to the loud shock waves that would occur every 10 seconds for the five-month period, it is thought that the seismic waves used to explore the Indian Ocean coast for oil and gas would have a negative impact on whales and other marine life in the area. These surveys have been found to disrupt marine communication, navigation and eating habits, which are essential to the survival of marine life. They also damage fish air bladders, marine eggs and larvae and can cause species to temporarily migrate away from the affected area. This may have knock-on effects on local fisheries.

Pollution

A grounded ship that collided with a gas tanker off the coast of Gibraltar has begun to leak fuel oil into the sea. A significant leak was discovered, though 80% of the ship’s diesel fuel has now been removed. Booms have been deployed to limit the spread of the oil, and skimmers are being used to recover the oil from the surface. Spanish authorities believe that a full clean-up can be achieved.

River water testing fell to a 10-year low last year, with only 41,519 samples tested compared to 100,000 in 2012. Experts warn that this is causing a ‘vacuum of knowledge’ about river pollution and its effects. The decrease in monitoring has coincided with repeated cuts to the Environment Agency budget. Pollution risks increase with low-flowing rivers, such as the conditions brought on by recent droughts, because the concentration of pollutants increases.

This Week in Biodiversity News – 17th August 2022

Climate change

There is widespread drought and water shortages across parts of Europe, including areas of England and Germany (where water levels in the Rhine River have dropped significantly), as well as France, Italy, Spain, Netherlands and Belgium. This is Europe’s most severe drought in decades, with high temperatures and reduced rainfall testing infrastructure and water supplies. England experienced the driest July since 1935, with only 35% of average rainfall for the month falling. Other rivers such as the Danube and the Po have been impacted, threatening wildlife.

Research

Most sharks killed for fins are at risk of extinction. A new study has found that more than two-thirds of sharks hunted and used in the global fin trade are at risk of extinction. By studying 9,820 shark fin trimmings from markets in Hong Kong between 2014 to 2018 using DNA analysis, the researchers found 86 different species. Of these, 61 are threatened with extinction. The majority of fins came from blue sharks which are classified as “near threatened” by the IUCN, with the other top species including silky sharks, hammerheads, makos and threshers. 

Self-pollinating plants are showing rapid loss of genetic variation. Flowering species that can self-pollinate lost genetic diversity within only nine generations without bumblebees. A new study has found that monkeyflower plants lost between 13–24% of their genetic variation compared to a group that was propagated by bumblebees. Reducing genetic diversity can limit a species’ ability to adapt to environmental changes, like those brought on by climate change. This study highlights the importance of pollinator species in combating the impacts of the climate crisis.

Conservation

Derbyshire conservationists aim to save Swifts by pushing housebuilders to install nesting bricks. These hollow bricks provide a nesting area for one of the UK’s most endangered birds, whose population has dropped by 65% in the last 25 years. The Derbyshire Swift Conservation Project, run by Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, aims to raise awareness of Swifts. This aim is now increasingly being included in planning applications for new housing. 

Cornish Choughs have had a bumper year, 20 years since the first Cornish-born Choughs were seen once again. Over 70 youngsters are being raised by 25 pairs, bringing the total population to around 200 birds. Just a single pair successfully fledged young in 2002 and now Choughs can be seen all over Cornwall.

Critically endangered Albatrosses are being plagued by mice on Gough Island. This small British overseas territory in the South Atlantic is home to the Triston Albatross, along with 21 other seabird species. Mice were introduced to the island accidentally over two hundred years ago. With no existing predators, the mouse population exploded, leading to a decline in seeds and insects. In response to this drop in food supply, some mice began to prey on seabird chicks. Last year, there was an attempt to eradicate this invasive species by dropping poisoned mouse bait all over the island but this attempt failed. The mice are now once again spreading across the island.

In brighter news, the saiga antelope population has increased 10-fold after a mass die-off in 2015. A fatal bacterial disease killed around half of the population, leaving only 130,000 animals. Now, an estimated 1.3 million saiga are living in the steppe grasslands of Kazakhstan. After being hunted to the brink of extinction, numbers were down to less than 40,000 in 2005. This new increase is the result of land protections and hunting bans, which have allowed the species to begin recovering.

Policy

The US Senate has passed a sweeping climate, tax and healthcare package, which will increase corporate tax, lower the cost of some medicines and, importantly for the fight against climate change, reduce carbon emissions. The $700bn (£577bn) economic package includes $369bn (£305bn) dedicated to climate action, the largest climate investment in US history. This will be split into multiple projects, including speeding up the production of clean technology, providing tax credits for those who buy an electric car and funding for communities that have suffered the most from fossil fuel pollution.

Endangered species breeding programmes are under threat due to new EU regulations. The EU Animal Health Regulation came into force in April 2021, after being agreed in 2016, creating new controls on the import of animals and plants into the EU. These new sanitary and phytosanitary checks must be carried out at border control posts, but few exist at airports in the EU and none at French ports. Before December 2020, there were an average of 1,400 transfers of species between the UK and other EU countries in order for breeding programmes to keep the gene pool as broad as possible. But since Brexit, there were just 56 in 2021, and so far this year, there have only been 84. The lack of checking posts has effectively banned the import of any large animal, potentially preventing the breeding of certain endangered species, such as the black rhino.

This Week in Biodiversity News – 3rd August 2022

Climate change

The Mediterranean ecosystem is suffering the equivalent of a marine wildfire as temperatures in the area are more than 6°C warmer than normal. It is feared that the area is being permanently altered by global heating, with cooler deep water no longer rising to the surface. One study found that these marine heatwaves have already destroyed almost 90% of coral populations around parts of the Mediterranean. This decline has knock-on impacts on biodiversity within the marine ecosystems of the area.

Research

New research on great white sharks looking into beneficial bacteria specific to the species may help to produce new antibiotics. Researchers swabbed the nostrils, teeth, gums, dorsal fins, cuts and wounds of great white sharks, before adding the samples to agar dishes, where USCB professor Kim Ritchie can study the bacterial cultures. As their wounds heal quickly, Ritchie is interested to see whether the bacteria on and around them may help humans who are resistant to current antibiotic treatments.

Great white shark by Elias Levy via Flickr

A new project is looking at the genetic differences between bee species. ‘Beenome100’ will look to answer questions on which genetic differences make some species more vulnerable to climate change or more susceptible to different pesticides. By creating a digital repository of the complete set of genes present in 100 US bee species, scientists can link specific genes to bee functions.

Between 1986 and 2020, invasive herpetofauna cost the world $17 billion, $16.3 billion of which were associated mainly with just two species, the brown tree snake (Boiga irregularis) and the American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus). This cost mainly comes from ruined farm crops and triggered power outages. The study’s researchers are hoping that their findings will encourage investment in preventing the spread of invasive species in the future.

Brown tree snake by Pavel Kirillov via Flickr

New discoveries

Scientists have recorded more than 30 potentially new species from the abyssal plains of the central Pacific. Researchers from the Natural History Museum used a remote-operated vehicle to reach depths of between 3,095 and 4,125 metres and collect over 55 specimens. These specimens include segmented worms and coral, as well as species from the same families as centipedes and jellyfish. The study highlights the potential implications of deep-sea mining for biodiversity.

Conservation

UK wild salmon stocks are reaching a crisis point, with the lowest number on record in England. A government report urges action to remove barriers in waterways and improve water quality. 42 rivers in England are considered ‘salmon rivers’ as they are traditional breeding grounds for the fish. Of these, 37 have been classified as at risk or probably at risk. Warming sea temperatures due to climate change are being blamed, along with poor water quality in rivers and estuaries, with every waterway in England failing pollution tests in 2020. The main sources of pollution are thought to be sewage outflows and agricultural runoff.

Water voles have been reintroduced to the River Beane in Hertfordshire after being locally extinct for more than 20 years. Threatened by habitat loss and predation by the invasive American mink, the species has seen a 90% drop in population over the last five decades. Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust, in partnership with the Woodhall Estate and with the support of the River Beane Restoration Association, reintroduced 138 water voles to the river near Watton-at-Stone. Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust aim to reintroduce water voles to all Hertfordshire rivers by 2030, through these reintroduction programmes and by improving habitats.

Water vole by Peter Trimming via Flickr

Pollution

A new Antarctic study has shown that the levels of ‘forever chemicals’ that are reaching this remote continent have been increasing. These chemicals include perfluorocarboxylic acid (PFCAs) and are termed forever chemicals as they do not break down naturally in the environment. They’re used in a variety of ways, such as in non-stick coating for pans and as water-repellents for clothing. The ice cores taken provide a record between 1957 and 2017 and show evidence that levels of these chemicals in Antarctic snow have increased over the last few decades, particularly between 2000 and 2017. There is ongoing research, however, into the clean-up of these forever chemicals, including a new study into bioremediation using a plant-derived material to absorb PFAs, disposing of them by allowing microbial fungi to eat them.  

Deforestation

A new study has found that over 60% of global forest area has been lost. Using a global land use dataset, the team of researchers found that global forest area declined by 81.7 million hectares (ha) between 1960 and 2019. Gross forest loss was 437.3 million ha, outweighing gross forest gain during this time, which was 355.6 million ha. The loss of forests, both in the net area and through replacement by new growth/plantations, has a significant impact on the integrity of forest ecosystems, reducing their ability to sustain biodiversity.

Climate Challenges: 7. Ocean Warming

In the lead up to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November of last year, and in the months that have followed, we have been writing a series of articles looking at some of the toughest global climate crisis challenges that we are currently facing. This blog looks at the causes of ocean warming and its impacts on marine ecosystems.

Dead coral at Lisianski overgrown with algae after a coral bleaching event in 2015. Image by John Burns via Flickr.
What causes ocean warming?

The ocean acts as a heat sink, absorbing large amounts of heat from our atmosphere and storing it over long periods; the ocean has a central role in stabilising our climate system. This heat is moved and mixed by tides, currents and wave action, allowing the ocean to soak up large amounts of heat without significant increases in temperature. This is changing, however, due to increasing concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases. IPCC data published in 2013 suggested that the ocean has absorbed over 90% of the excess heat generated by greenhouse gas emissions since the 1970s. This is resulting in increased ocean temperatures, with the greatest warming occurring in the southern hemisphere and in the upper 75m of the oceans surface. Average global ocean surface temperatures increased by 0.11°C per decade from 1971 to 2010. This heat sink process has helped limit the rise of global average temperatures but it has serious environmental consequences.

What are the impacts of ocean warming?

Ocean warming has a wide range of impacts on ocean chemistry, habitats, ecosystems and biodiversity, the severity and type of which can vary between habitats depending on their resilience and present biodiversity levels. Combined with other stressors such as pollution, acidification and increased nutrient input, ocean warming can increase the vulnerability of habitats and marine life to other threats such as parasites and disease outbreaks.

Water temperature is a significant environmental stressor, particularly in shallow or nearshore habitats, as they often act as nursery areas for many species. If water temperatures within nursery habitats rise above tolerable levels, they will no longer be suitable, impacting the survivorship, growth and recruitment of the species that use them.

Fishing net tangled on a reef. Image by Tim Sheerman-Chase via Flickr

Deoxygenation

Oxygen solubility varies depending on the temperature of the water; warmer ocean water holds less oxygen compared to colder water. Warmer water is also less dense, and rising ocean temperatures leads to increasing ocean stratification, where water is separated into layers. This can act like a barrier and prevents the mixing of water, slowing down ocean circulation and reducing the amount of oxygen reaching deeper waters. It is thought that dissolved oxygen levels have fallen by 2% since the 1950s due to the combined threats of ocean warming and excessive algae growth caused by anthropogenic nutrient input. Areas of low oxygen concentrations have expanded worldwide, with hundreds of new sites reported to be affected and anoxic ocean waters quadrupling in volume since the 1960s. 

Ocean deoxygenation has serious consequences for marine ecosystems and biodiversity, as oxygen is necessary to sustain life for almost all organisms in the ocean. Deoxygenation could lead to a decline in species numbers, diversity and individual growth, resulting in major ramifications throughout the food chain. In ecosystems already vulnerable due to other pressures such as overfishing, deoxygenation could lead to extinctions and even deadzones. Hundreds of millions of people rely on the oceans as a source of food and livelihood; they could be severely affected by a reduction or collapse in fish stocks. 

Warmer waters also increase the oxygen requirement of fish, exacerbating the effects of deoxygenation. There will likely be a shift in the structure of marine ecosystems as more hypoxia-tolerant species, such as jellyfish, will be favoured over less tolerant species, such as large fish and marine mammals. 

Coral bleaching

Corals are marine invertebrates that often have a hard calcium carbonate skeleton. They live in a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with photosynthetic unicellular dinoflagellates called zooxanthellae (endosymbionts), which live in their tissues. They rely on these endosymbionts for up to 95% of their energy requirements. Under certain physiological stresses, such as increasing water temperatures, these endosymbionts can be expelled and the corals turn white without the pigment from the zooxanthellae – this phenomenon is known as ‘coral bleaching’. If the stress continues over an extended period and the coral is not recolonised, the coral will eventually die. Increasing ocean temperatures over the last few decades have resulted in large-scale loss of coral across the world. This has led to degraded coral reef habitats, impacting the ecosystem and species that rely on them. Coral reefs provide food, shelter and spawning grounds for thousands of marine species, therefore the degradation of coral reefs has wide-reaching consequences. 

Bent sea rod bleaching. Image by Kelsey Roberts, U.S. Geological Survey via Flickr

Habitat loss and range shifting

All species have a thermal tolerance range. Some more generalist species are able to tolerate a broader range, but specialist species occupy a much narrower thermal niche and are therefore more vulnerable to temperature change. Temperature changes can trigger a knock-on effect on ecosystem structures as species migrate into more suitable habitats. The general trends in these shifts are a movement to higher latitudes and deeper locations. 

Many factors affect a species’ capacity to adapt to rising temperatures, including their dispersal ability, thermal tolerances, habitat or resource needs and the community composition of the new potential habitat. If the new area has high levels of pressure from competition, predation or lack of resources, or the species’ dispersal ability is limited (e.g. the species is sessile), successful establishment is unlikely.

Commercial fishing boat. Image by Gary Leavens via Flickr

Changes in community structure can negatively impact biodiversity, as the loss of whole populations from initial habitats can trigger a cascade of consequences on predator and prey populations, potentially altering entire ecosystems. These range shifts can also impact the communities already present, as new species could lead to increased competition for resources or the arrival of a novel predator that prey species are not adapted to avoid. There will also likely be socio-economic impacts on local fisheries if species move away from traditional fishing grounds.

Range shifting has been recorded in zooplankton, where warm-water species are extending their ranges poleward at a rate of up to to more than 230km per decade. There has also been a corresponding decline in the abundance of cold-water species in these areas. Zooplankton play a key role in many food chains as they are an intermediary species, transporting energy from the primary producers (phytoplankton) they consume to their predators, such as fish and decapods. Therefore, these changes in zooplankton community composition impact whole marine food webs, especially as warm-water species are generally smaller and less energy-rich.

Radiolarian zooplankton stack images, composed of dozens of single photographs taken using a microscope at different focus levels. Images 1, 2, and 3 by Picturepest via Flickr.

Temperature-dependent sex determination

Some marine species exhibit environmental sex determination, where certain environmental factors can influence the sex of offspring during embryonic or early juvenile development. With increasing ocean temperatures, the proportion of males to females being born could be altered in certain species, leading to biased sex ratios. This can affect reproduction, genetic diversity and potentially population numbers. 

Many fisheries are female-dependant, as female fish tend to grow larger, therefore are more likely to grow to harvestable sizes and can produce a larger yield. Southern flounder (Paralichthys lethostigma) exhibits sex reversal to males during early juvenile development at both 18°C and 28°C, with the optimal temperature for female development being 23°C. Southern habitats consistently have higher temperatures of over 27°C, therefore producing more male-biased sex ratios, potentially impacting the viability of fisheries operating out of these locations.

Other impacts

Warming ocean temperatures are also thought to be impacting breeding patterns, with many species reproducing earlier. This could lead to an uncoupling of certain predator and prey interactions if migrating predators arrive too late to feed during spawning events. Some species have been found to breed for a shorter duration, such as black sea bass (Centropristis striata) whose spawning season is starting later and ending earlier in the northern parts of their range. This suggests that there may be lower reproduction and recruitment in newly occupied ranges, demonstrating the potential future impact of warming ocean waters on species experiencing poleward-driven range shifts. Migration patterns have also been noted to be affected, with similar potential results.

Ocean warming also reduces the amount of sea ice. The implications of this, such as sea-level rise, coastal flooding and erosion, will be covered in more depth in a future blog post.

Coral spawning. Images 1 and 2 by Pei Yan via Flickr
What can be done?

As the main driver for increasing ocean temperatures is the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, the solution is to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond this, we need to protect and restore our marine and coastal ecosystems and manage the other stressors that are exacerbating the impacts of ocean warming. By creating protected areas and restoring degraded habitats, we can create refuges for species and improve biodiversity, which has been shown to increase ecosystem resilience against the impacts of climate change.

By working with fisheries, governments could introduce further policies that work towards sustainability, such as by improving quota limits and reducing by-catch. Many governments and fisheries are already working towards this, but scientific research and accurate data are needed to ensure that population estimates are accurate to prevent overfishing. Steps like these will help to reduce the pressures we place on the marine realm, allowing ecosystems to be more resilient to the effects of ocean warming. 

Scientific research into monitoring ocean warming is also important. Up-to-date and accurate measurements, with local and global monitoring of the rates, trends and effects can help policymakers make rapid and correct decisions to mitigate the worst impacts. Many of the policies signed at COP26 may make a positive difference, as reducing deforestation and methane emissions and adopting policies to reach net zero by 2050 will help to limit ocean warming. However, more can and should be done. 

Summary
  • Oceans absorb atmospheric heat, the amount of which has increased due to high greenhouse gas emissions. The greatest warming occurs in the southern hemisphere and the upper 75m.
  • Ocean warming has a variety of impacts including deoxygenation, habitat loss, range shifting, coral bleaching and changes to breeding patterns. These various impacts can all have negative effects on marine biodiversity and human livelihoods.  
  • As the main driver for marine warming is increased greenhouse gas emissions, the main solution is cutting these emissions. Other solutions include protecting and restoring marine habitats, reducing pressures from other threats such as overfishing and increasing the accuracy and use of scientific research. 
Useful resources:

Duffy, J. E., et al. 2016. Biodiversity enhances reef fish biomass and resistance to climate change. PNAS 113(22): 6230-6235

Honeycutt, J. L. et al., 2019. Warmer waters masculinize wild populations of a fish with temperature-dependent sex determination. Scientific Reports 9(1): 6527

Poloczanska, E. S., et al. 2016. Responses of Marine Organisms to Climate Change across Oceans. Frontiers in Marine Science 3(62): 1-21

Slesinger, E., Jensen, O. P., and Saba, G., 2021. Spawning phenology of a rapidly shifting marine fish species throughout its range. ICES Journal of Marine Science 78(3): 1010-1022

Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2014 of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Page 11 

Our previous blog, a round-up of COP26, covering the major outcomes of the event and how they might affect our efforts to combat climate change.

Impact of Climate Changes on Marine Environments
Paperback | October 2016

This book discusses the modifications in marine ecosystems related to global climate changes, including shifts in temperature, circulation, stratification, nutrient input, oxygen concentration and ocean acidification, all of which have significant biological effects.

 

Rewilding the Sea: How to Save Our Oceans
Hardback | June 2022

Charles Clover chronicles how determined individuals are proving that the crisis in our oceans can be reversed, with benefits for both local communities and entire ecosystems. Essential and revelatory, Rewilding the Sea propels us to rethink our relationship with nature and reveals that saving our oceans is easier than we think.

 

Ocean Ecology: Marine Life in the Age of Humans
Hardback | November 2021

This authoritative and accessible textbook advances a framework based on interactions among four major features of marine ecosystems – geomorphology, the abiotic environment, biodiversity, and biogeochemistry – and shows how life is a driver of environmental conditions and dynamics.

 

The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate: Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Paperback | May 2022

This special report is the most comprehensive and up-to-date assessment of the observed and projected changes to the ocean and cryosphere and their associated impacts and risks.

 

Climate and the Oceans
Paperback | October 2011

This offers a short, self-contained introduction to this subject, beginning by briefly describing the world’s climate system and ocean circulation and going on to explain the important ways that the oceans influence climate. Topics covered include the oceans’ effects on the seasons, heat transport between equator and pole, climate variability, and global warming.

 

The Great Ocean Conveyor: Discovering the Trigger for Abrupt Climate Change
Hardback | February 2010

Wally Broecker is one of the world’s leading authorities on abrupt global climate change. In The Great Ocean Conveyor, he introduces readers to the science of abrupt climate change while providing a vivid, firsthand account of the field’s history and development. This book opens a tantalizing window into how Earth science is practised.

James Lovelock Obituary

James Lovelock 1919–2022

We have recently received the sad news of the passing of James Lovelock, an environmentalist, chemist, futurist and the creator of the Gaia hypothesis.

Born in 1919, he attended the University of Manchester at age 21 and graduated with a PhD from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 1948, becoming an independent scientist in 1961. He had since been awarded honorary degrees from several institutions, including the University of Exeter, Stockholm University and the University of Colorado Boulder. His career was varied, from travelling aboard the research vessel RRS Shackleton to working on developing scientific instruments for NASA, and even performing cryopreservation experiments. 

Lovelock was the first person to detect Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere after developing an electron capture detector in the late 1960s. CFCs are nontoxic chemicals used in the manufacturing of products such as aerosol sprays, and are used as solvents and refrigerants. Their role in the depletion of the ozone layer led to their inclusion in the Montreal Protocol, which worked to phase out several substances to protect the ozone layer. During his time aboard the RRS Shackleton, Lovelock measured the concentration of CFC-11 from the northern hemisphere to the Antarctic. These experiments provided the first useful data on the widespread presence of CFCs in the atmosphere, though the damage these cause was not discovered until the 1970s, by Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina. 

James Lovelock was also known for his Gaia hypothesis. This hypothesis, first created in the 1960s, proposed that the complex interacting system of the Earth’s biotic and abiotic parts could be considered as a single organism. Drawing from research by Alfred C. Redfield and G. Evelyn Hutchinson, Lovelock formulated that living organisms interact with the non-living environment to form a synergistic and self-regulating complex system, by co-evolving with their environment. He suggested that the whole system, including the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and pedosphere, seeks an environment optimal for life. This evolution is facilitated through a cybernetic feedback system that is unconsciously operated by the biota, leading to a final ‘state’ of full homeostasis. 

While the Gaia hypothesis is generally accepted by many in the environmentalist community, there has been some criticism, particularly from the scientific community. Lovelock later made revisions to the hypothesis to clarify that there was no conscious purpose within this self-regulating system and to bring the hypothesis into alignment with ideas from other fields, such as systems ecology. This had reduced criticism, but there still remains scepticism from the scientific community.

Lovelock wrote more than 200 scientific papers as well as a number of books on a variety of topics within chemistry, environmentalism, geophysiology, climate change and more. Lovelock’s work has been recognised a number of times, receiving awards such as the Tswett Medal in 1975, the Dr A. H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences in 1990 and the Royal Geographical Society Discovery Lifetime Award in 2001. He was also appointed a member of the Commander of the Order of the Britsh Empire for services to the study of Science and the Atmosphere in 1990 and a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour for services to Global Environmental Science in 2003. In 2006, he was awarded the Wollaston Medal, an achievement also received by Charles Darwin.

Bruno Comby, CC BY-SA 1.0, via Wikimedia Commons

James Lovelock: 26th July 1919–26th July 2022

This Week in Biodiversity News – 20th July 2022

Policy

The European Parliament has voted to ban ‘fly shooting’ fishing in a part of the Channel. This technique, also known as demersal seigning, involves towing weighted ropes along the seabed at either end of a net, which then encircles and captures entire shoals of fish. Fly shooter vessels catch up to 11 times more fish than inshore fishing vessels and have a devastating effect on the marine ecosystem, biodiversity and local fishers. This decision is seen as a victory for small-scale fishers but it will also help reduce the damage caused to the seabed and marine ecosystems in the Channel. 

A strategy designed to halt biodiversity loss across North Dublin by 2030 will not be achieved in full due to a lack of funding. Fingal County Council has completed the public consultation on its draft Biodiversity Action Plan 2022-2023, but has stated it would cost €4 million annually to implement and therefore two-thirds of the programme will not be achieved by the EU 2030 deadline. The funding gap is stated to be due to other competing priorities, such as housing, roads, sports and community facilities.  

Climate change

Experts are stating that the UK is no longer a cold country and must adapt to extreme heat to prevent thousands of deaths. A specific heat risk strategy must be drawn up by the government, as well as updating housing stock and ensuring that new builds can cool down in hot weather. Scientists are urging governments to work quickly to phase out fossil fuels and reach net zero emissions, as climate change is driving heatwaves, making them hotter, last longer and become more frequent. This comes after warnings that the UK, and countries across the world, could see heatwaves for the rest of summer.

Plastics

UK households recycle only 12% of single-use plastics, disposing of nearly 100 billion pieces of plastic packaging a year. A new survey by Greenpeace is one of the largest voluntary research projects on the scale of plastic waste and it asked households to count their plastic waste for one week in May. Almost 250,000 people from around 100,000 households took part and showed that the largest proportion of plastic waste was from food and drink packaging at 83%. The most common item was fruit and vegetable packaging. On average, each household threw away 66 pieces of plastic packaging in one week.

Pollution

The Environment Agency (EA) is calling for water company bosses to be jailed for serious pollution. Shocking levels of pollution occurred in the last year, with 62 serious incidents of pollution in 2021. The EA has stated that chief executives and board members of companies responsible for the most serious incidents should be jailed and that courts should impose much higher fines. Only three water companies received the highest rating of four stars for their pollution performance. The rating takes into account the number and severity of pollution incidents, as well as self-reporting and the use and disposal methods of sewage sludge. Two companies, Southern Water and South West Water, were given the lowest rating of one star.

Conservation

3D printed reefs are being used to restore marine biodiversity. WWF Denmark and Ørsted have been testing how structures made of 70% sand and 30% pozzolanic cement (a combination of volcanic ash and portland cement) could be used to create new habitats for fish and other wildlife in the Kattegat strait between Denmark and Sweden. Twelve of these structures have been deployed between the wind turbines at Anholt Offshore Wind Farm, and it is hoped that they will help reverse the decline of cod stock in the Kattegat. 

Bison have been released into the wild in the UK. Wild bison are ecosystem engineers and can help to restore biodiversity in woodlands through their natural behaviours, such as felling trees by rubbing against them and grazing. This is hoped to provide a nature-based solution to tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis. The releases are part of a five-year project led by Kent Wildlife Trust and the Wildwood Trust. The next steps include introducing Exmoor ponies, Iron Age pigs and Longhorn cattle. 

Contraceptives are being given to grey squirrels in an attempt to control their population and allow red squirrel populations to improve. Grey squirrels are a non-native species first introduced from North America in the 19th century. They cause significant damage to UK woodlands as they strip the bark from trees, and they tend to target younger trees that are typically between 10-50 years old, either killing them or maiming them and leaving them vulnerable to pests and diseases. Culling has not been found to be a sufficient control measure, therefore it is thought that using contraceptives, which have longer-lasting effects, may be more effective.

Young Maori divers are hunting invasive crown-of-thorns starfish to save coral reefs. The species, also known as taramea, feed on coral reefs and, when there are too many individuals, can destroy reef habitats. Korero O Te `Orau, a local environmental organisation, has been training young Maori people in scuba diving to remove taramea from the reef and bury them inland. The recent outbreak of this species around the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands could jeopardize the survival of the surrounding coral reef if not tackled properly. More than 3,700 taramea have been collected so far.  

Research 

Great white sharks might change their colour when hunting prey. Researchers conducted experiments off of South Africa using a specially designed colour board with white, grey and black panels. Each shark was photographed as it jumped out of the water at the panels, with the experiment being repeated throughout the day. One particular shark appeared to be both dark grey and a much lighter grey at different times. The results were verified using computer software to correct for variables such as weather, light levels and camera settings. While the research has not yet been validated and published in a scientific journal, experts are still excited about the results.