Anthropogenic Climate Change: Arguments for and against

This post is the second of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 1 introducing the topic here, Part 3 on evolutionary biology here (coming soon), and Part 4 on dealing with misinformation here (coming soon).


There is a broad scientific consensus about the reality of climate change and its causes. Readers starting off on this topic have plenty to choose from to get them started, for example Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know (Romm, 2015), Climate Change: A Very Short Introduction (Maslin, 2014), or the rather whimsical Ladybird Expert book Climate Change (Juniper & Shuckburgh, 2017). Al Gore thrust the topic into the limelight with An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do about It (2006). For those who want the full picture, there is Climate Change 2014 (IPCC, 2015), the fifth series of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC operates under the auspices of the United Nations, and was set up at the request of member The Discovery of Global Warminggovernments in 1988. Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast (Archer, 2011) is an excellent starting point to help readers understand the science behind the assessment reports. Another valuable contribution is The Discovery of Global Warming (2008), written by science historian Spencer R. Weart, one of the few books charting the historical development of climate science.

But the science is only one facet of climate change; this spills over into politics and policy. Despite decades of research by scientists and an expanding body of evidence, the world at large, both its leaders and everyday individuals, seem unable to make much headway in addressing the issue, and unable to agree what the best way forward is. A good starting point analysing this from many sides is The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Dryzek et al. 2011). William Nordhaus is one of several economists to have written about policies implemented so far (and their ineffectiveness) in The Climate Casino: Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World (2013). Other books have been written offering explanations as to why we seem unable to act, tapping into psychological and sociological aspects, for example Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life (Norgaard, 2011), Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change (Hamilton, 2010), and Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (Hulme, 2009). And plenty of authors have issued calls to action, ranging in tone from polemic (This Why We Disagree About Climate ChangeChanges Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Klein, 2014)), to ominous (Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (Hansen, 2009)) to seemingly fatalistic (Too Late: How We Lost the Battle with Climate Change (Maslen, 2017), Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene (Hamilton, 2017), or Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed, and What It Means for Our Future (Jamieson, 2014)).

Part of the reason there is still no clear progress is that there is still plenty of scepticism. Broadly speaking, the sceptics belong to one of two groups.

On the one hand there are the ‘reasonable’ sceptics who bring valuable contributions to the debate. These authors do not deny that climate change is happening, but are critical of model predictions (though see A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (Edward, 2010) for a good rebuttal of that argument), and the efficacy of proposed policies to address the issue. Good starting points are An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming (Lawson, 2008), or The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming (Pielke, 2010). The latter has also published a short book that is sceptical of the oft-heard claim that climate change will increase natural disasters. His analysis, presented in The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change (Pielke, 2014), concludes that these claims are not borne out by the evidence. The Lomborg DeceptionIn short, there are simply more people and more property in harm’s way, giving the impression that natural disasters have become worse. Even Bjørn Lomborg in The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (2001) does not deny the reality of climate change (but see The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight About Global Warming (Friel, 2010), for a wide-ranging rebuttal of his environmental claims).

In the second group there is a vocal minority of climate sceptics and denialists who claim climate change is being exaggerated (Lukewarming: The New Climate Science that Changes Everything (Michaels & Knappenberger, 2016)), is not borne out by the evidence (Heaven and Earth: Global Warming, the Missing Science (Plimer, 2009), Global Warming – Alarmists, Skeptics and Deniers: Unstoppable Global WarmingA Geoscientist Looks at the Science of Climate Change (Robinson & Robinson, 2012)), or can be attributed to other natural causes such as long-term natural cycles (Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years (Singer, 2006)) or solar activity (The Neglected Sun: Why the Sun Precludes Climate Catastrophe (Vahrenholt & Lüning, 2015)). Climate Change: The Facts (Moran, 2015) bundles essays touching on these and other objections.

In their 2013 paper, Dunlap & Jacques noted that many climate change denial books (including the ones above) are published by conservative think tanks such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Heartland Institute, the CATO Institute, or the Marshall Institute. Many of these think tanks receive funding from fossil fuel or other corporations, making their neutrality questionable. Though denialist books are now increasingly self-published via so-called vanity presses, Dunlap & Jacques highlight that such books are rarely peer reviewed, allowing authors to make scientifically inaccurate and discredited claims that they can keep recycling, no matter how often climate scientists have already patiently refuted these, or shown them to be logically untenable.

This leads to books on climate scepticism campaigns, as documented in the light-hearted The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy (Mann, 2016), Climatology versus Pseudoscience: Exposing the Failed Predictions of Global Warming Skeptics (Nuccitelli, 2015), The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (Mann, 2012), The Inquisition of Climate Science (Powell, 2011), Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand (Washington & Cook, 2011), Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Oreskes & Conway, 2010), and Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming (Hoggan & Littlemore, 2009).

Within the welter of claims and counter-claims, Michael Mann has, and continues to be, a key protagonist, starting with his famous paper in Geophysical Research Letters that contained a figure showing global temperature change over the past 1,000 years, the “hockey stick graph”. The graph rapidly became an icon in the efforts to undermine the credibility of climate science and the researchers involved (see for example “A Disgrace to the Profession” (Steyn, 2015), or The Hockey Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science (Montford, 2010)). When in November 2009 thousands of emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia were released during a server hack – an episode that became known as “Climategate” – Mann once again found himself the centre of attention. Snippets from these emails, some of which included correspondence with Mann, were rapidly taken up by popular media, with sceptics arguing they showed global warming was a scientific conspiracy and scientists were manipulating climate data. No fewer than eight committees, both in the US and the UK, investigated these allegations and found no evidence of fraud or misconduct. Mann covers this in his books, but also see The Climate Files: The Battle for the Truth about Global Warming (Pearce, 2006).

One final point worth mentioning on this topic, as often pointed out by climate scientists, is that even if things do not pan out as bad as we feared, given the potentially devastating impact, we should heed the precautionary principle, as laid out in Philosophy and the Precautionary Principle: Science, Evidence, and Environmental Policy (Steel, 2014).

Click here for Part 3, which looks at the discussion surrounding evolutionary biology (coming soon).

On Truth and Post-Truth in Science

This post is the first of a four-part series on polarised discussions in science and how to deal with misinformation. You can find Part 2 on climate change here, Part 3 on evolutionary biology here (coming soon), and Part 4 on dealing with misinformation here (coming soon).


Oxford Dictionaries
proclaimed ‘post-truth’ as the international ‘word of the year’ in 2016, on the back of Michael Gove’s ‘Britain has had enough of experts – a defining moment of last year’s BREXIT referendum – and the incessant flow of claims and counter-claims during the US presidential election. It’s kept the commentariat busy, giving rise to at least one superb analysis (listen in to Jo Fidgen on the BBC Radio 4’s Nothing But the Truth) and some dark humour (the spoof ‘Mordor National Park’ twitter account set up in January, ‘We’d like to repeat again that yes, open campfires are allowed in Mordor National Park. Everything here is on fire.’).

But in the world of books on evolution, ecology, conservation, and climate change, ‘post-truth’ is not new. It’s 16 years since the publication of the first English edition of Bjørn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (2001), which (publisher’s blurb) ‘challenges widely held beliefs that the environmental situation is getting worse’; 36 years since Julian Simon wrote The Ultimate Resource (1998), arguing that humanity is not running out of natural resources; and 158 years since Charles Darwin unveiled his theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species (1859; 150th Anniversary Edition, Darwin & Endersby, 2009), triggering intense debate, disagreement, vitriol and accusations of lying that make today’s disputes look positively placid by comparison.

Our view on these issues is at once simple and complicated. As a company we are staunch believers in evolutionary theory, and the truth of findings from climate science that show how dangerous global warming is a consequence of humanity’s burning of fossil fuels, and of the loss and degradation of forests and other terrestrial ecosystems. But our staff and our customers will have their own views; as is right and proper.

Our purpose in this four-part series is to highlight recent publications that help readers think more critically, recognise pseudoscience, and deal with the large amount of spin, misinformation, and created controversies that pollute these discussions. In the process, we will give a brief overview of two areas that are the subject of intense and polarised public debate: climate science and evolution. As we wish to inform rather than rant, our selection of books includes views from various sides of the debates. Lest there be any doubt in the mind of the reader, this does not mean that we endorse all these views, or are planning to catalogue a wider range of books to give a platform to them. But, for the purpose of this piece, we feel we would do the reader no service by ignoring their existence.

Click here for Part 2, which looks at the discussion surrounding climate change.

Kaleidoscope 4.3.0 Bioacoustic Software Now Available

The newest version of Kaleidoscope, version 4.3.0, is now available to download from the Wildlife Acoustics website.

See below for details about the new features included in this release, as well as a handy table to see which version of Kaleidoscope is right for you, and some useful tutorial videos.

New features include:

New Bat Auto-ID Classifiers
New bat classifiers for North America, Neotropics, Europe and South Africa as well as updated common names for some species. The default setting for classifiers is now “Balanced” which is a useful compromise between the more sensitive and more accurate options.

New time-saving workflow features
New features in the results viewer window include:
• When opening a saved results spreadsheet, a file browser allows you to easily locate the folder containing the corresponding input files
• Bulk ID multiple selected rows
• Bulk copy files in selected rows to a specified folder

Full support for GUANO metadata (Kaleidoscope Pro only)
Kaleidoscope now reads and write GUANO information alongside Wildlife Acoustics metadata (WAMD).  This will been shown in the file at the end of the metadata notes window.

Bug fixes
Several bugs have also been fixed in the new release, details of which can be found in the Kaleidoscope documentation.

Which version of Kaleidoscope is right for me?

Kaleidscope Tutorial Videos


Kaleidoscope UK, Kaleidoscope Neotropics and Kaleidoscope Pro are all available to purchase from NHBS.

 

Book Review – Turtles as Hopeful Monsters

Turtles as Hopeful MonstersTurtles as Hopeful Monsters: Origins and Evolution

Written by Olivier Rieppel

Published in hardback by Indiana University Press in March 2017 in the Life of the Past series

Turtles have long vexed evolutionary biologists. In Turtles as Hopeful Monsters, Olivier Rieppel interweaves vignettes of his personal career with an overview of turtle shell evolution, and, foremost, an intellectual history of the discipline of evolutionary biology.

An initial, light chapter serves to both introduce the reader to important experts on reptile evolution during the last few centuries, as well as give an account of how the author got to study turtles himself. After this, the reading gets serious though, and I admit that I got a bit bogged down in the second chapter, which discusses the different historical schools of thought on where turtles are to be placed on the evolutionary tree. An important character here is skull morphology and a lot of terminology is used. Although it is introduced and explained, it makes for dense reading.

I think the book shines in the subsequent chapters that give a tour of the evolution of, well, evolutionary thinking.

When Darwin formulated his theories, he argued that evolution is a slow and step-wise process, with natural selection acting on random variation to bring about gradual change. This is the transformationist paradigm. Turtles as Hopeful Monsters, page 53The fossil record has yielded some remarkable examples where a slow transformation has occurred over time, such as the development of hooves in horses. But equally, there are many examples where no such continuous chain exists in the fossil record. Turtles are one such example, as they just suddenly appear in the fossil record, shell and all. Darwin himself attributed this to ‘the extreme imperfection of the fossil record‘. This lack of transitional fossils has of course been eagerly exploited by the creationist / intelligent design movement for their own ends.

But ever since Darwin, biologists have argued, and still do, that there exist mechanisms that allow for rapid innovation and saltatory evolution (i.e. evolution by leaps and bounds). This is the emergentist paradigm. Rieppel gives an overview of the different theories that have been put forward over the last two centuries, which is both illuminating and amusing. This covers such luminaries as Richard Goldschmidt (who coined the phrase “hopeful monsters”), Stephen Jay Gould (who revived it), and Günter Wagner (who provides the best current explanation according to Rieppel).

Just a little bit more about this phrase “hopeful monsters”, as this is such a prominent part of the book’s title. According to Goldschmidt, major new lineages would come about through mutations during early development of the embryo. This, of course, has the risk of producing monsters when the organism matures, likely resulting in premature death. So, Goldschmidt proposed a theory of hopeful monsters, where such drastic changes would successfully result in new evolutionary lineages with new body plans. His explanations, which required evolution to be goal-directed and cyclical (so-called orthogenetic evolution) have become obsolete, but he wasn’t entirely off the mark either. The best current explanations, according to Rieppel, comes from Wagner (author of Homology, Genes, and Evolution) and others who suggest radical changes to body plans do originate at the embryonic stage, and that the cause is the rewiring of the underlying genetic mechanisms.

Turtles as Hopeful Monsters, page 181The final two chapters of the book show how the debate over turtle shell evolution has gone back and forth between these two paradigms over time. Here again, Rieppel goes quite deep into morphology, this time of the shell, with accompanying terminology. Although the consensus seems to be leaning towards changes in embryonic development being responsible for the sudden appearance of the turtle shell in the fossil record, the final chapter deals with recent fossil finds from southwestern China that have revealed a potential missing link: a turtle with a fully developed belly shield.

Overall then, this book is a highly enjoyable romp through the intellectual history of evolutionary biology, using turtle evolution as its red thread. I could have used a bit more hand-holding here and there, and I feel the book would have benefited from an (illustrated) glossary or some extra illustrations. The reading gets quite technical when Rieppel goes into expositions on skull and shell morphology. That said, this book is an excellent addition to the popular science works in the Life of the Past series.

Turtles as Hopeful Monsters is available to order from NHBS.

The NHBS Guide to Small Mammal Trapping

Field vole (Microtus agrestis)

Small mammals form a vital component of our terrestrial ecosystems, both by contributing to overall biodiversity and providing prey for carnivores such as owls, pine martens and weasels. Survey data for many of our small mammal species is insufficient for them to be assessed as part of the UK BAP process and so supporting our national monitoring programme is incredibly important.

One of the most common ways of monitoring small mammals is through the use of live traps. These allow a range of species to be monitored simultaneously, and also allow biometric data such as weight and sex to be collected. In addition, estimates of population size and structure can be calculated using capture-mark-recapture (CMR) techniques. The use of live traps is also a great way for getting volunteers involved and providing them with an up-close experience of the animals they are passionate about.

Live-catch techniques, however, do have a few disadvantages in that populations can be affected by disturbance or mortality. Live-trapping is also unsuitable in certain areas (such as urban or busy rural regions) and requires a relatively large amount of time and expenditure.

Here we will take a look at some of the most commonly available live-traps used for small mammal survey.

Longworth Trap

Longworth Small Mammal Trap

The Longworth trap is made from aluminium which makes it lightweight for field use. This trap has been widely used in the UK for many years.

The trap consists of two parts: a tunnel which contains the door tripping mechanism, and a nest box, which is attached to the back of the tunnel. The nest box provides a large space for food and bedding material to ensure that the trapped animal is comfortable until release.

Advantages
• Widely used for many years; well documented in scientific literature
• Lightweight and durable
• Sensitivity of the trip mechanism can be adjusted
• Door can be locked open for pre-baiting

Disadvantages:
• Expensive
• Replacement parts not available
• Larger species can occasionally trip the trap without being caught
• Pygmy shrews may be too light to trigger the trap mechanism

Sherman Trap

Sherman Trap

Sherman traps work by use of a triggered platform which causes the door to shut when the animal enters. It folds down to a size and shape which is easy to transport.

Sherman traps are available in a range of different sizes to suit the species that you are hoping to catch. They can be purchased in aluminium or as a galvanised version which is more resistant to rusting.

Advantages:
• Lightweight and foldable – easy to transport and store
• Different sizes available, including long versions
• Easy to clean

Disadvantages:
• Difficult to add bedding/food as this interferes with the trap mechanism
• Traps may distort over time with repeated folding
• Danger of long tails being trapped in the door

BioEcoSS TubeTrap

The TubeTrap is a relatively new addition to the mammal trapping range and features an innovative design. It provides a safe method of trapping even the smallest mammals such as shrews.

The robust plastic construction has self-lubricating and fully replaceable parts. It can be purchased either with or without a shrew hole in the door. Spare doors are also available which means that you can convert the trap between shrew and non-shrew versions quickly and easily.

Advantages:
• All parts are easily user-replaceable
• Door can be locked open for pre-baiting
• Trigger sensitivity is easily adjustable; suitable for pygmy shrews
• Green colour of trap makes it inconspicuous in the field

Disadvantages:
• Door is a little fiddly to set – particularly for larger fingers
• Relatively new design means it has been tested fewer times in the field in comparison to Longworth or Sherman Traps

Economy Mammal Trip-Trap

Economy Mammal Trip-Trap

The Economy Trip-Trap provides a cheaper alternative to other mammal traps.  It has a traditional treadle design which closes the door behind the animal when it enters the trap.

This lightweight trap is suitable for short-term or occasional use and is also popular for trapping mice indoors either for surveying or for relocation.

Advantages:
• Cheap and lightweight
• Transparent for easy inspection
• Good for indoor use

Disadvantages:
• Doesn’t work well in wet/humid conditions
• Can’t pre-bait or change trigger sensitivity
• Trapped animals may chew through the trap

Pitfall Traps

P2.5 litre Plastic Bucketitfall Traps consist of a container which is sunk into the ground, into which small mammals can be caught. Traps can be baited if required and drift fencing can also be used to direct animals into the trap.

Small cans or buckets make ideal pitfall traps. If using buckets, lids can be fitted when not in use, which means that traps can remain in situ for extended periods of time.

Advantages:
• Able to catch multiple individuals
• Low maintenance

Disadvantages:
• More labour intensive than box traps to set up
• Trapped animals may attack eachother or be eaten by predators
• May become waterlogged in damp areas or in bad weather

Other survey methods

Other methods of surveying for small mammals include the analysis of owl pellets for mammal remains and the use of dormouse nest tubes. Hair and footprint tubes are also useful as well as searching for field signs such as tracks and faeces.

A comprehensive monitoring programme will most likely involve a combination of these methods, depending on the availability of participants and volunteers and the type of habitat present locally.

If you are interested in becoming involved in mammal survey in the UK, take a look at the Mammal Society website where you will find information on local recording groups, training opportunities and the latest mammal-related research.

Our full range of mammal traps can be found on our website.

 

Book Review – How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution

Written by Lee Alan Dugatkin & Lyudmila Trut

Published in March 2017 by Chicago University Press

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) tells a remarkable story about a remarkable long-term experiment you will most likely never have heard of. I hadn’t, despite my background in evolutionary biology. When the announcement for it crossed my desk a month or so ago, its subtitle immediately grabbed my attention.

For more than 60 years, Russian scientists have been cross-breeding captive foxes in Siberia, selecting for tameness, in a bid to learn more about the evolutionary history of animal domestication. Written by evolutionary biologist and science historian Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut, who has been part of this experiment for close to six decades, it tells the story from its inception.

Back in 1952, geneticist Dmitri Belyaev had many questions regarding domestication. Though the breeding techniques were well understood, how did domestication start? The wild ancestors of today’s domestic animals would have likely run away or attacked humans, so what changed to make domestication possible? Being the lead scientist at a state laboratory that helped fur breeders produce more beautiful and luxurious fox pelts, he had both the knowledge and the means to tackle these questions. His plan? Experimentally mimic the evolution of the wolf into the dog using its close genetic cousin the fox. It was bold, both in its timescale, likely needing years – even decades – to yield results, but also in its timing. You see, Russia was still under the communist rule of Stalin, and one of his protegees, the poorly educated agronomist Trofim Lysenko, was waging a war on the “western” science of genetics. Scientists were expelled, imprisoned, and even murdered over their career choice. But Belyaev, having lost a brother this way, refused to back down. Far from Lysenko’s prying eyes in Moscow, in the frozen wilderness of Siberia, he started his breeding experiments, purporting to improve breeding rates in case anyone did come asking. Lyudmila joined him in 1958, and this book is their story.

It’s a story of science, and the authors do a good job distilling the findings into a reader-friendly format. The results are fascinating as the foxes rapidly evolve from wild animals to tamer and tamer companions that crave human interaction, undergoing a raft of subtle morphological changes in the process. But it’s also very much a human story. Of the women, often local peasants, who came to work at the fox farm, not necessarily understanding the science, but showing immense dedication to the cause. Of the researchers, who developed a deep love for, and connection with the generations of foxes, who rapidly became more dog-like in their behaviour and appearances.

It’s a story of persistence against all odds; the experiments are running to this day and have survived Stalin’s brutal regime, the Cold War, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with all the economic turmoil that that caused. And it’s a story of an opportunity most scientists can only dream of: being able to follow up on previous findings and answering questions raised by previous experiments. Uniquely, this played out during (or perhaps was able to keep going because of) a period in which our knowledge of genetics, and the technologies available, kept on developing. The measuring of neurochemicals, epigenetics, PCR, genome mapping, next-generation sequencing… as new questions were being generated, so new techniques became available to probe deeper into the mysteries of the domestication.

The book makes for fascinating reading and is hard to put down once you start it. Highly recommended.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) is available to order from NHBS.

Great Crested Newt eDNA Service with Nature Metrics

Great Crested Newt by Chris H is licensed under CC BY 2.0
What is eDNA?

eDNA or environmental DNA is genetic material found in the environment. This DNA comes from organisms in various forms including (but not limited to) faeces, mucus, gametes, shed skin or hair. Although eDNA degrades over time, it can persist long enough for its presence to be tested from environmental samples.

eDNA sampling for Great Crested Newts

Sampling and testing of eDNA in pond water is a relatively new, but increasingly popular, method of determining presence of Great Crested Newts. Provided that the sampling and analysis protocol complies with DEFRA guidance and that samples are collected between 15th April and 30th June, then eDNA test results are accepted by Natural England and Natural Resources Wales.

Unlike traditional methods of bottle trapping or torch searches, collecting pond water samples for eDNA analysis has very low impact on newts and other pond inhabitants. It also has obvious benefits in terms of labour time, and ecologists are less restricted to specific times of day for surveying. It could also provide a more accurate method of determining the presence of Great Crested Newts which are notably difficult to survey reliably. The technique is not without limitations, however, and can be problematic in ponds with large amounts of algae or sediment or where accessibility is a problem.

How do you collect and analyse eDNA samples?

The sampling process involves the use of a sterile ladle to collect 20 samples of pond water which are then mixed together in a bag. A small volume of this pond water is then added to each of six tubes containing a preservative solution and control DNA. These tubes are returned to the lab where quantitative PCR (qPCR) is used to amplify and measure the GCN DNA (if present), thus determining the presence of GCN eDNA in the samples.

NHBS and Nature Metrics

This spring, NHBS will be working with Nature Metrics to provide a complete GCN eDNA analysis service. Combining our expertise in sourcing, packing and shipping equipment with the excellent laboratory proficiency of Nature Metrics, this partnership will allow both teams to focus fully on our strengths in order to provide a fast and efficient service.

For more information about Nature Metrics and the eDNA, Metabarcoding and Metagenomics services they can provide, please visit www.naturemetrics.co.uk

 

The Sensory Ecology of Birds: Interview with Graham Martin

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is a fascinating new work that explores the sensory world of birds from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. The author Professor Graham Martin gives us some insights into his inspiration, the incredible diversity of avian sensory adaptations, and how studying sensory ecology can help in developing practical conservation solutions.

 

Professor Graham Martin – Author of The Sensory Ecology of Birds

How did you first become interested in bird senses?

Through owls. As a child I used to listen to tawny owls calling all through the night in a nearby wood and I wanted to know what they were doing and how they did it. My father took me round the woods at night and that experience led me to wanting to know more about the eyesight of owls.

What inspired you to write the book and what kind of readers do you think would find it useful?

I have been studying bird senses all of my working career. Nearly 50 years ago I started to get paid for looking into bird senses; it has been a strange and exciting way to spend my time. After such a long time of investigating the senses of so many different birds I wanted to bring it all together, to provide an overview that will help people understand birds from a new perspective. I think anyone interested in birds will enjoy the book and find it useful. No matter which group of species intrigues you most, this book will enable you to see them from a new perspective. Understanding bird senses really does challenge what we think birds are and how they go about their lives.

Sensory ecology is a relatively new field of research; could you explain a little about what it is and what makes it particularly relevant today?

Sensory Ecology is basically the study of the information that birds have at their disposal to guide their behaviour, to guide the key tasks that they perform every day to survive in different types of habitats.  Different habitats present different challenges and to carry out tasks animals need different sorts of information. Birds have at their disposal a wide range of different sensory information, they are not just reliant upon vision. However, each species tends to be specialised for the gaining of certain types of information. Just as each species differs in its general ecology, each species also has a unique suite of information available to them. Sensory ecology is also a comparative science. It compares the information that different species use and tries to determine general principles that apply to the conduct of particular behaviours in different places. For example how different birds cope with activity at night or underwater.

Sensory adaptations to overcome the challenges of being nocturnal in two species, the Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) and Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Sensory Ecology also looks at why evolution has favoured particular solutions to particular problems.  I think the major result of this kind of approach is that it certainly challenges our assumptions about what birds are and also what humans are. We do not readily realise that our view of the world is very much shaped by the information that our senses provide. We are rather peculiar and specialised in the information that we use to guide our everyday behaviours. My hope is that people will come to understand the world through birds’ senses, to get a real “bird’s eye view”. In doing so we can understand why birds fall victim to collisions with obvious structures such as powerlines, wind turbines, motor vehicles, glass panes, fences, etc. We can then work out what to do to mitigate these problems that humans have thrown in birds’ way.

An understanding of how a species perceives its environment can be very useful in designing practical conservation measures. Could you give us some examples?

Yes, I have been involved in trying to understand why flying birds apparently fail to detect wind turbines and power lines, or diving birds fail to detect gill nets.  These investigations have led to a number of ideas about what is actually happening when birds interact with these structures and what we can do to increase the chances that birds will detect and avoid them.

How do you think that studying avian sensory ecology can enhance our understanding of our own sensory capabilities and interaction with the world?

It gives a fresh perspective on how specialised and limited our own view of the world is. We make so many assumptions that the world is really as we experience it, but we experience the world in a very specialised way. Sensory ecology provides lots of new information and facts about how other animals interact with the world, what governs their behaviour, but equally importantly sensory ecology questions very soundly our understanding of “reality”, what is the world really like as opposed to what we, as just one species, think it is like. This is quite challenging but also exhilarating. We really are prisoners of our own senses, and so are all other animals. Sensory ecology gives us the opportunity to understand the world as perceived by other animals, not just how we think the world is. That is really important since it injects a little humility into how we think about the way we exploit the world.

Could you give us some insight into how birds can use different senses in combination to refine their interpretation of the world around them?

Owls provide a good example. Their vision is highly sensitive but not sufficiently sensitive to cope with all light levels that occur in woodland at night, so owls also rely heavily upon information from hearing to detect and locate moving prey. The nocturnal behaviour of owls requires these two key sources of information but even these are not enough. To make sense of the information that they have available to them the woodland owls need to be highly familiar with the place in which they live, hence their high degree of allegiance to particular sites.  Other birds, such as ducks, parrots and ibises rely heavily upon the sense of touch to find food items. The degree to which this information is used has a knock on effect on how much the birds can see about them. So a duck that can feed exclusively using touch, such as a mallard, can see all around them, while a duck that needs to use vision in its foraging cannot see all around. This in turn has implications for the amount of time birds can spend foraging as opposed to looking around them, vigilant for predators. In many birds the sense of smell is now seen as a key source of information which governs not just foraging, but also social interactions.

Are there interesting examples of species that are specialists in one particular sense?

Usually birds rely upon at least two main senses that have become highly specialised and which are used in a complementary manner. For example, in ibises it might be touch and vision, in kiwi it is smell and touch, in some of the waders it is touch and taste, but in other waders touch and hearing.

White-headed vulture – photo credit: Graham Martin

Probably the most obvious single sense specialisations are found among aerial predators such as eagles and falcons, they seem to be highly dependent upon vision to detect prey at a distance and then lock on to it during pursuit. However, we really don’t know anything about other aspects of their senses and there is a lot left to learn about them.

Can you tell us about any species that you have studied that you find particularly fascinating?

Oilbirds; they are really challenging to our assumptions about what birds are, how they live and what information they have available to them.

Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) – photo credit: Graham Martin

Oilbirds are the most nocturnal of all birds, roosting and breeding deep in caves where no light penetrates, emerging only after dusk and then flying over the tropical rain forest canopy to find fruit. But they are a form of nightjar! In the complete darkness of caves they use echolocation to orient themselves and calls to locate mates. When searching for food in the canopy they use their sense of smell to detect ripe fruits, they have long touch sensitive bristles around the mouth. And their eyes have sensitivity close to the theoretical limits possible in vertebrate eyes.  They seem to rely upon partial information from each of these senses, and use them in combination or in complementary ways. They really are marvellous, but in truth the senses of any birds, and how they are used, are fascinating and intriguing, it is a matter of delving deep enough, and asking the right questions.

In what kind of direction do you think future sensory ecology research is headed?

We now have available a lot of techniques to find out about the senses of birds, from behavioural studies, to physiology and anatomy. Armed with these techniques, and also with ways of thinking and measuring the perceptual challenges of different tasks and different environments, there are so many questions to investigate. We have some fascinating findings but we have only just scratched the surface with regard to species and it does seems clear that senses can be very finely tuned to different tasks. I like to compare the diversity of the bills that we find in birds with the same diversity in the senses in those species.

Every bill tells a story about form and function, about evolution, ecology and behaviour. The senses of birds show the same degree of diversity and tuning. So to me sensory ecology is a wide open field with lot of questions to investigate. To appreciate the world from a bird’s perspective will, of course, give us a much better understanding of how to mitigate the problems that humans have posed to birds by shaping the world for our own convenience.

The Sensory Ecology of Birds is available now from NHBS

New Bat Detectors for Spring 2017

It’s that time of year again. Spring has sprung earlier than ever, and the survey season will very soon be under way. In this post we look at some of the fantastic new bat detectors due for release this spring.

Anabat Swift

The Anabat Swift from Titley Scientific is based on the excellent design of the Anabat Express and records in full spectrum as well as zero crossing. Users can choose between sample rates of 320 or 500kHz and a built-in GPS receiver automatically sets the clock, calculates sunrise and sunset times and records the location of the device.

 

Echo Meter Touch 2

The Echo Meter Touch 2 is perfect for bat enthusiasts and students and will let you record, listen to and identify bat calls in real-time on your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. All you need is your iOS device, your Echo Meter Touch 2 and the Echo Meter Touch App which is a free download from the iTunes store.

Echo Meter Touch 2 Pro

Designed for consultants and professional bat workers, the Echo Meter Touch 2 Pro has all the great features of the Echo Meter Touch 2 but with additional user options such as an adjustable sample rate (256kHz and 384kHz), adjustable gain and advanced trigger settings.

Batcorder Mini

The compact Batcorder Mini has a very simple user interface with just a single button to start and stop recording. Calls are recorded in full spectrum onto the built-in memory (64GB) and the internal lithium-ion battery is chargeable by USB. A built-in GPS receiver sets the time, date and location.

Ultramic384 Ultrasound Microphone

This high performance ultrasound microphone will connect to a USB port for real time listening and can also be used as a stand-alone recorder when used with a USB battery. An internal microSD card slot allows data to be recorded.

Batcorder GSM

The Batcorder GSM is designed for use at a wind turbine site and includes a microphone disk which is inserted directly into the turbine nacelle. The unit runs off mains power from the turbine and a GSM function lets you receive status messages, reassuring you that everything is recording correctly. A Raspberry Pi setup also lets you backup your files to a memory drive and download data directly or over an internet connection.

 

 

Our full range of bat detectors can be found at www.nhbs.com

 

The NHBS Guide to Pond Dipping

Pond Dipping, Pensthorpe by Spencer Wright
Pond dipping is a fun and educational activity for all ages. Creative Commons “Pond Dipping, Pensthorpe” by Spencer Wright is licenced under CC BY 2.0

Pond dipping is an excellent activity for children of all ages and is a great way to introduce them to a wide range of plants, insects and amphibians. It also offers an opportunity to learn about food chains and food webs as well as discovering variations in lifecycles and the effects of pollution on aquatic life.

For school groups, a pond dipping trip will satisfy many of the criteria for learning about life processes and living things, and it can also be used to provide inspiration for art, maths or English projects. Younger children will enjoy drawing or painting pictures of the creatures they find, as well as writing stories about their experiences.

Don’t forget though that pond dipping isn’t just for children. Ponds, pools and small lakes are an integral part of our ecosystem and surveying the plant and animal diversity within them is an important way of assessing their health. If you are interested in volunteering as a pond surveyor, take a look at the Freshwater Habitats Trust website for more information.

How to pond dip:
  1. Half fill a tray or bucket with water and set aside. Do the same with your collecting pots and/or magnifying pots (if using).
  2. Use a net to dip into the pond. Sweeping in a figure of eight will ensure that you retain the catch in the net. Areas around the edge of the pond, especially near vegetation, tend to be the most productive. Take care not to scoop up mud from the bottom of the pond, as this will clog up your net and make it difficult to see what you have caught.
  3. Gently turn the net inside out into the tray. Once everything has settled, you should be able to view a fascinating selection of pond-dwelling creatures. A pipette can be used to transfer individual specimens to a magnifying pot for a closer look.
  4. Use a guide such as the Freshwater Name Trail or the FSC “What’s in my Pond” pack to identify the creatures found. For adults or older children a more in depth guide such as Ponds and Small Lakes or the New Holland Concise Pond Wildlife Guide will cover a greater range of species.
  5. When you have finished, make sure to return all water and inhabitants to the pond. Trays, pots and nets should be rinsed and dried thoroughly before storage. If you are going to be using nets in different ponds then sterilising using a broad spectrum disinfectant will help prevent the spread of disease.

Please note: Children should always be well supervised and aware of health and safety rules when working near water. Suitable clothing should be worn; wellington boots or other sturdy footwear are recommended.

Pond dipping equipment:

At NHBS we stock both individual and class sized pond dipping kits. These contain nets, trays, pots, magnifier and pipettes, as well as the excellent (and waterproof!) Freshwater Name Trail which will help you to identify the key animals found in UK ponds. Or why not choose from our top 10 list of equipment and books for pond dipping:

  1. Pond Net

Pond Net

Made at our workshop in Devon, the Pond Net is a high quality, lightweight net with a removable bag for cleaning. The bag is made from woven 1mm mesh which is ideal for pond dipping. Also available in a telescopic version.

2. What’s in your Pond?

Find out the names of the insects, plants, amphibians and repiles that you see. Features three of the FSC’s popular fold-out charts: Reptiles and Amphibians (frogs, toads, newts, slow worms, lizards and snakes), Freshwater Name Trail (classic pond dipping guide) and Commoner Water Plants (from lilypads to water mint). Also includes a card-sized magnifier.

3. Heavy Duty Sampling Trays

These strong white trays are ideal for pond dipping as they are robust and stable enough to be carried when full of water. Available in three sizes.

 

4. Bug Pots (Set of 10)

This set of 10 Bug Pots is perfect for pond dipping, as well as general nature studies. Each pot has a 2.5x magnifying lid and a measurement grid of 5mm squares on the base. They are ideal for storing and observing specimens.

 

5. RSPB First Book of Pond Life

Through beautiful full-page illustrations accompanied by key information about each creature, the First Book of Pond Life will help to encourage young children’s interest in the outside world and the wildlife around them. Covers 35 of the most common pond species. Also includes a spotter’s chart for children to fill in and links to internet-based activities.

6. Economy Pond Net

A simple and affordable pond net. Knotless mesh is guaranteed not to run if holed and, importantly, will not harm specimens which are collected in the net. A plastic handle makes it very lightweight. Available in three sizes.

7. Ponds and Small Lakes: Microorganisms and Freshwater Ecology

Suitable for adults and older children, this books introduces some of the less familiar and microscopic species found in ponds such as diatoms, desmids and rotifers. Along with excellent photographs, the book provides useful identification keys so that readers can identify, explore and study this microscopic world. This book is due for publication March 2017.

8. Pipettes

Small pipettes are extremely handy for sorting through and picking up tiny creatures found when pond dipping. They can also be used to transfer samples to microscope slides to look at the microscopic specimens found. These 3ml pipettes are available singly or in packs of 10 or 100.

9. 125ml Collecting Pots

These sampling containers are made from see-through rigid polystyrene and have secure screw-on lids. They are recommended for liquids and so are ideal for keeping specimens when pond dipping or rock pooling. Available either singly or in packs of 10, 30 or 100.  Different sizes of pot can also be purchased.

10. Bloomsbury Concise Pond Wildlife Guide

Packed with information on more than 190 species of animal and plant that inhabit ponds, pools and small lakes in northern Europe. Among the fascinating animals featured are freshwater sponges, hydras, water bears, worms, leeches, water snails, dragonflies and damselflies, frogs and toads, bats, fish, birds, water voles and otter.