South West Marine Ecosystems conference 2024

The 2024 South West Marine Ecosystems (SWME) conference was held at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in April. Running since 2007, the conference brings together organisations and individuals involved in research on and management of the marine environment to report on annual system changes in the south-west. The conference covers the oceanography, plankton, seabed and seashore, fish, seabirds, seals and cetaceans of the south-west. Alongside key trends and interesting occurrences from the past year, SWME also encompasses management themes: marine planning, protected areas, fisheries, water quality and plastic pollution. This year’s theme focussed on the interconnectedness of the environment and its management, demonstrating this connectivity through interaction and discussion between guest speakers. In this blog we provide a roundup of SWME 2024 

Coastline in Dorset showing a rocky water edge and sunset
Image by Pedro via Flickr.


The first session began with a rundown of oceanography and weather conditions across the UK, setting the scene for our marine environment. The UK experienced an increase in mean air temperature and increased sunshine duration over winter. There was also a decrease in mean rainfall across the UK and record-breaking heatwaves – some of us may remember the scorching temperatures of June last year, a worrying 2–3°C anomaly.  

From March 2024, a new bylaw prohibits the use of bottom towed gear in defined areas of 13 marine protected areas (MPAs). Hartland Point to Tintagel Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ), Cape Bank MCZ, Lands End and Cape Bank MCZ, South of Celtic Deep MCZ, Wight-Barfleur Reef MCZ, East of Haig Fras MCZ and Greater Haig Fras MCZ are the MPAs that will benefit from this designation in the south-west. Devon Wildlife Trust vocalised a desire for a ‘whole-site approach’ for MPAs in the region – managing the site in its entirety, not just where protected species or features are present. 

No single stretch of river was found to be in ‘good’ overall health in 2023. Image by Dave_S via Flickr.

The Devon Maritime Forum stressed an urgency to address issues surrounding water quality in the south-west. They reported that no single stretch of river was found to be in ‘good’ overall health in 2023 – with quality impacted by agricultural run-off, sewage overflows, climate change and urban diffuse pollution. The UK Government has pledged to invest £1.6 billion to improve the water quality of rivers, lakes and coastal waters. Investments will be used to tackle storm overflow discharges, treatment works pollution and water resilience. South West Water will also be investing £70 million to upgrade infrastructure to reduce discharges in the region.  

Analysis of plastic pollution showed that polyethylene was the most common material in plastic waste and marine litter fragments. To tackle the issue of plastic pollution on a global scale, the Global Plastics Treaty is under negotiation, and is expected to be legally binding by 2024. The treaty will address the full life cycle of plastic products and aim to end the pollution by these materials worldwide.  

Key points:  

  • Higher average winter temperatures and sunshine, with decreased rainfall were observed in 2023 
  • A new bylaw will prohibit the use of bottom-towed gear in seven MPAs. 
  • The UK Government has pledged to invest £1.6 billion to improve freshwater and coastal water quality 
  • The Global Plastics Treaty will be legally binding by the end of 2024, intending to end plastic pollution



Plankton researchers saw a higher abundance of salps (a barrel-shaped pelagic tunicate), consistent with a general increase in filter feeders over the past 30 years. There was also an influx of Barrel Jellyfish strandings across the south-west, with the species accounting for 27% (467) of the annual total of jellyfish sightings. A new method of plankton sampling has been developed, called Automated In-situ Plankton Imaging and Classification System (APICS). This new technology will help to determine the impacts of environmental changes on plankton, allowing for long-term, broad-spectrum measurements of the group.  

New observations have improved our understanding of Basking Shark behaviour, revealing that this species may remain in UK waters throughout winter, instead of migrating south as previously believed. Blue Sharks were also caught more readily than previous years, exhibiting a higher catch per unit effort (CPUE), with over 1,000 caught off the coast of Looe, in Cornwall. The UK had its first sightings of Smalltooth Sand Tiger Shark, with a 10-foot individual washing up in Lyme Regis, Dorset. Typically seen in tropical and temperate waters, the discovery of this species in the UK is indicative of the effects of climate change on marine megafauna. Atlantic Bluefin Tuna have also been returning to the south-west with most sightings between July and February. There has been a marked increase in catch rate (over 5,000 were landed in 2023) which has prompted the introduction of fisheries plans (see below).  

A large white Barrel jellyfish with a blue fringe in the sea
2023 saw an influx of Barrel Jellyfish strandings. Image by Ales Kladnik via Flickr.

Rat eradication has been hugely successful for a number of seabirds. On Lundy, Manx Shearwaters and Puffins have responded positively and have seen population increases in 2023, and Storm Petrels have recolonised the island. Razorbills and Guillemots are also recovering well and are breeding successfully without predation from rats. The south-west has luckily missed the worst of avian influenza, although some small gulls and terns were affected in Dorset last summer. However, Kittiwakes are having local productivity issues which is prompting concern, and several species of gull are experiencing significant declines: Herring Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls have all experienced losses over 40%. The English Seabird Conservation and Recovery Pathway (ESCaRP) report was published at the start of 2024, highlighting the sensitivity of seabird species to a range of pressures. Vulnerability assessments were conducted to inform the recovery pathway, and the report has made recommendations for conservation measures to address negative impacts.  

Puffins have responded positively to rat eradication programmes. Image by Jason Thompson via Flickr.

There are concerns over the impacts of climate change on Humpback Whales. Increasingly, we are seeing individuals which are choosing not to migrate and are instead remaining in UK waters. Researchers believe that these animals are not undertaking seasonal movements due to a lack of food resources during winter – demonstrating that decreased productivity at the base of the food chain can cause issues further down the line for other marine organisms.

Key points:

  • New technology will provide a greater understanding of the impact environmental change may have on plankton 
  • Atlantic Bluefin Tuna and shark sightings have increased in the south-west, including the Smalltooth Sand Tiger Shark, never previously recorded in the UK 
  • Rat eradication programmes have been hugely successful in protecting seabirds 
  • Kittiwakes and a number of gull species are experiencing declines 
  • Climate change is thought to be impacting Humpback Whale migration 



The Crown Estate have announced plans to develop more offshore wind farm projects, generating an additional 4GW of electricity to contribute to the 50GW by 2030 goal. This additional capacity could power up to four million homes, contributing to the UK target of net zero by 2050. Large, floating platforms have been proposed to enable deployment in deeper water – installation further offshore provides more reliable wind resources, generating more power for the same installation on-shore. There have been assessments to prepare for the deployment of extensive offshore wind in the south-west – with pre-consent surveys run by The Crown Estate. Celtic Sea Power, owned by Cornwall Council, is supporting offshore roll-out and has identified areas for data collection in the region. There are three project development areas where aerial, geophysical, acoustic and LiDAR surveys are taking place to improve data collection, accelerating the programme. The Poseidon Project was established by Natural England to provide a sensitivity map across the EEZ (exclusive economic zone –a surrounding area of 200 nautical miles offshore, where the nation has jurisdiction over resources) through digital aerial surveys. Collecting detailed information on seabirds, marine mammals and habitats, the project aims to improve models of abundance and distribution for key species which may be impacted by offshore development.  

Offshore wind farm
There have been preparations to install further offshore wind. Image by the Department of Energy and Climate Change via Flickr.


Sardine and Anchovy stocks are reported to have had a good year, continuing to support fisheries in the south-west, while Sprat fisheries have slowed due to insufficient stock size and 0-group fish (fish in their first year of life). We can see that new fisheries are emerging in the region (e.g. Atlantic Bluefin Tuna quota of 39 tonnes), while other, more traditional stocks are declining (e.g. Edible Crab). Five fisheries management plans have been developed for bass, King Scallops, crab and lobster, whelk and non-quota demersal species – these plans are put in place to deliver sustainable fisheries while minimising negative impacts on marine species. Dogger bank SAC, The Canyons MCZ and Inner Dowsing, Race Bank and North Ridge SAC were protected from damaging fishing activity in 2022 by prohibiting trawls, seines, dredges and bottom towed gear – this bylaw seeks to protect cold-water coral reefs, seabed, sandbanks and biogenic reef.  

Key points:  

  • Offshore wind development is being accelerated by better data collection and availability, supporting the UK in reaching renewable energy targets 
  • Some traditional stocks are declining, while new fisheries are emerging 
  • Five fisheries management plans were introduced 
  • Four areas of conservation concern were protected to prohibit bottom towed gear 

This year’s conference was an enlightening insight into the marine ecosystem in the south-west and highlighted some inspirational conservation work undertaken by several organisations, and individuals, dedicated to this environment. The SWME YouTube channel has a selection of webinars and further information on the conference can be found on the SWME website 

This week in biodiversity news – 1st January 2024


A final vote on the Nature Restoration Law (NRL) will be taking place in the European Parliament early this year. This regulation aims to halt and reverse biodiversity loss in Europe by implementing restoration measures on a minimum of 20% of land and marine areas by 2030. Specific targets to rewet peatlands and increase pollinator populations are also included in the law. Financial support for the NRL will come from funds provided by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

Svalbard Reindeer herd by Smudge 9000 via Flickr.

New research conducted at the Quinney College of Natural Resources has shown that Barnacle Geese have a bigger impact on Svalbard’s ecosystem than Reindeer, and that their impact is increasing over time. Since the Arctic climate is shifting faster than other places under global climate change, and Svalbard is one of the most rapidly warming regions on Earth, understanding the effects of these herbivore populations on ecosystem functioning is important and will allow scientists to predict how this region is likely to be affected in the future.

It is no secret that pesticides are harmful to honey bees. However, new research from the University of Illinois has provided more information on how such pesticides impact the sense of smell in bees with consequences for social signalling such as the detection of colony pheromones. This research has also shown how fungicides, previously thought to be harmless to bees, can be toxic, especially when used in combination with insecticides and adjuvants (chemicals that help the insecticide to stick to the target plant).

Flesh-footed Shearwater by patrickkavanagh via Flickr.

A researcher at the Natural History Museum, London, is using machine learning to find out more about the types of plastic that seabirds are feeding to their young. Birds such as the Flesh-footed Shearwater often mistake small pieces of plastic for food, but it isn’t currently known whether they target certain types of plastic based on appearance. This information would help in identifying the types of plastic that need to be removed from the ocean most urgently.


Since 2009, the Cambridge Conservation Initiative has conducted a horizon scan each year which aims to predict which threats, changes and technologies will be most significant over the next twelve months. This year, the final list included fifteen topics including several relating to sustainable energy, declining invertebrate populations and changing marine ecosystems. The list of issues, as in many of the recent years, reflects both anthropogenic impacts on biodiversity alongside the technological advances designed to deal with those impacts.


Following a year of unprecedented global temperatures, scientists are now trying to understand what this can tell us about climate change and the rate at which it is accelerating. Although one exceptional year would not be enough to suggest the inaccuracy of current climate prediction models, researchers are now trying to find out whether something unexpected may be occurring due to the interactions between two or more climate influences.

With climate change, Oak trees are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the Oak Processionary Moth. Image by peterichman via Flickr.

A recent audit by the National Trust has found that the weather is “causing chaos for UK flora and fauna”. A lack of reliable seasonal patterns, accompanied by extreme weather events, droughts and floods are putting a huge amount of stress on plants and animals. The National Trust say that more action is urgently required from politicians to ensure that tackling the associated biodiversity and climate crises is a priority, particularly as we enter an election year.

This week in biodiversity news – 11th December 2023


Beavers will return to the Cairngorms after 400 years in a bid to boost biodiversity. The new population will be established by the Cairngorms National Park authority after being approved by NatureScot, Scotland’s nature agency. Up to 15 families of beavers will be released at sites along the upper River Spey. This catchment is an ideal location for beaver translocation and poses a low risk of beaver/human conflict, according to NatureScot.

beaver swimming in a river
Beaver swimming by Chris Burke via Flickr.

The fight to save Red Squirrel populations continues to rage across the North of England. Retired police constable and firearms instructor, Ian Glendinning, monitors 2,000 acres of farmland in Northumberland and employs a range of techniques to keep the Grey Squirrels in check. Monitoring Northumberland’s Coquetdale, he has employed CCTV and traps that alert him via text and email when a squirrel is detected. Using this monitoring system, Glendinning has removed around 300 Grey Squirrels which has had a noticeable impact on the Red Squirrel population, allowing their population to increase from a dozen to more than 100 over the past four years.

Policy and diplomacy

Countries are set to commit to a major phasing down of fossil fuels over the coming decades, COP28 hosts expect. The United Arab Emirates, which is hosting the UN climate change conference in Dubai, has expressed “cautious optimism” regarding the commitment. Until COP26 in Glasglow in 2021, fossil fuels were rarely mentioned in these global gatherings. Even there, the only commitment was to phase down coal. While the pledge will not mean stopping the use of fossil fuels completely, it could signal a shift towards real progress on tackling climate change.

Chimneys spewing smoke from a powerplant.
Powerplant by Wladimir Labeikovsky via Flickr.

Carbon pricing could raise the money needed to tackle the climate crisis, the IMF has told COP28. The cash could be generated by putting a price on carbon emission and redirecting the trillions of dollars currently used to subsidise fossil fuels. Traditional carbon taxes have proven to be unpopular in a number of countries but Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the IMF, has said that it would be possible to achieve similar outcomes by using a combination of regulation and reducing carbon subsidies. Studies have shown that developing countries will need more than $2 trillion a year to cut emissions and the IMF has calculated that direct and indirect subsidies for fossil fuels are in excess of more than $7 trillion. 

Climate Crisis

Olive oil prices are surging due to droughts in Spain. Spain is the world’s biggest producer of olive oil, accounting for 70% of European Union consumption and 45% of global consumption. The standard assumption that one bad year for olive production would be followed by a good one is shifting in the face of rising temperatures due to climate change. Spain has seen multiple years of drought in a short time frame, and together with higher fuel, electricity and fertiliser costs, Spanish olive oil production has suffered as a result. The price of olive oil has skyrocketed in Spain with prices in the UK and Ireland set to experience a similar surge once costs feed through to the supply chain.

olives with leaves in a pile on the ground
Olives for olive oil by Pom via Flickr.

Methane could be released from the Deep Ocean due to climate change, scientists have warned. Scientists at Newcastle University have shown that frozen methane trapped under the ocean is vulnerable to melting and is consequently released into the oceans and the atmosphere. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and the published report in the journal Nature Geoscience warns that vast amounts of methane stored as marine methane under the ocean could be released into the atmosphere, with the potential for accelerating rises in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. 


Plans to ‘de-extinct’ the dodo have been announced by geneticists. The audacious plan was announced by the US-based biotechnology company Colossal Biosciences which is researching methods to bring extinct species back from the dead. The company has entered a partnership with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation (MWF) to find a suitable location for the reintroduction of the species. MWF approached Colossal Biosciences earlier this year about a partnership and has begun searching for the location that would pose the least threat to the survival of the dodo on the island. Colossal believes that the ‘de-extinction’ of the dodo would create ‘conservation optimism’; however, scientists have urged caution given how little is known about how the bird would interact with its environment. The full genome of the dodo has already been sequenced by Colossal. It hopes that it could then hybridise the dodo with closely related species like the extant Nicobar Pigeon, the bird’s closest living relative.

Forested area on rolling green hills.
Forests of Mauritius, the proposed habitat for dodos to live. By Evgenii via Flickr.
Science and research 

Birds are being lured to their deaths by artificial lights in cities, according to researchers. Using weather radar data to map bird stopover density in the United States, scientists found that artificial light is a major indicator of where birds land. Light from cities lures birds into a trap where there is less suitable habitat, less food and an increased chance of collisions with buildings. Researchers suggest that more public awareness of bird migration habits and the impact of light pollution could help to alleviate the pressure on migratory bird populations. Forecasts can pinpoint the nights which are most important for reducing light pollution.

Read the last edition of Biodiversity News covering stories about nuclear fusion technology and the pollution of England’s freshwater ecosystems.

This week in biodiversity news – 13th November 2023

Extinction Risk

First images of a lost echidna species prove that it is not extinct. An expedition to the sacred Cyclops Mountains in Indonesia uncovered evidence of Attenborough’s Long-beaked Echidna. Echidnas are ancient egg-laying mammals thought to have emerged 200 million years ago when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. Until now, the only evidence for this particular species of echidna, named after Sir David Attenborough, was a museum specimen. Scientists hope that the discovery of living echidnas will help make the case for conservation efforts in the Cyclops Mountains. In addition to the echidna, new species of insects and frogs were discovered alongside healthy populations of birds of paradise and tree kangaroos.

Echidna by Rod Waddington via Flickr. (Species differs from that mentioned in the above text).

Fewer than half of Bornean Sun Bears survive after release due to habitat loss and poaching, according to a recent study. Sun Bears are a keystone species in the jungles of South-East Asia, helping to sustain healthy forest ecosystems; however, fewer than 10,000 Sun Bears are thought to remain in the wild due to pressures from deforestation, habitat degradation and poaching. The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) looks after Sun Bears rescued from captivity and releases them back into the wild. A recent study has shown that many released Sun Bears die due to the dangers they encounter in the wild, including poaching, territorial disputes and starvation. A lack of familiarity with their new surroundings may also contribute to this high death toll despite the released bears being skilled climbers and foragers.

Malayan Sun Bear by cuatrok77 via Flickr.

An ambitious project in the Fens seeks to reclaim thousands of acres for nature. The Great Fen Project, organised by Wildlife Trust conservationists, aims to purchase 9,000 acres of farmland around two Fenland nature reserves to allow water to return to the land. This will support the formation of water meadows, streams and pools which will encourage wetland species such as Bittern and Marsh Harrier. By rewetting fields, it also seeks to preserve peat and reduce carbon emissions. With a projected price tag of around £30 million, the project will be one of the most ambitious restoration projects in all of Europe.

Wicken Fen by Alex Brown via Flickr.

Svalbard is letting nature take back one of its massive coal mines. The Svea mine in Svalbard, Norway, which produced 34 million metric tonnes of coal over its lifetime, is undergoing a significant natural restoration project. The restoration effort, costing approximately 1.6 billion Norwegian kroner (€1.35 million), aims to return the site to its natural state, allowing nature to reclaim the land. This move is part of Norway’s commitment to preserving the wilderness of Svalbard, as the region transitions away from the fossil fuel industry, closing coal mines and shifting towards tourism and scientific research.

Climate Crisis

Surges in jellyfish numbers in UK waters are an indication of warming oceans, according to the Marine Conservation Society. The number of jellyfish seen on UK beaches has increased by 32% in the past year. Warm water jellyfish such as the Crystal Jellyfish have been spotted following global ocean temperatures reaching a record high in August and marine heatwaves in June which caused UK sea temperatures to rise by 3–4°C. Experts have said that more research will be needed to determine the exact cause of the jellyfish blooms this year.

Jellyfish on Cefn Sidan Sands by Reading Tom via Flickr.

Global temperatures will reach the 1.5°C threshold this decade, according to a new report. In 2015, countries agreed to take measures to hold global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels as part of the Paris Climate Agreement. New research by a team of scientists from Columbia University and NASA suggests that this goal is already out of reach, which may raise alarm bells at the coming COP28 climate talks. Other estimates suggest that the threshold will be breached in the 2030s.

Education and awareness

The RSPB is to give under 25s free access to its nature reserves in a bid to increase youth engagement with nature. The charity is set to roll out the two-year pilot program this month. The programme seeks to address what research has shown to be a dip in nature connectedness in teenage years. Similar worries prompted the government to introduce a new GCSE in natural history, and other nature charities are seeking to focus on outreach to the younger generations.

RSPB Fowlmere by Airwolfhound via Flickr.

Chimpanzees in Ivory Coast have been observed using military-like tactics to gain an advantage over rivals, a study has revealed. Chimps were observed seeking high ground for reconnaissance missions and making strategic decisions based on the size and proximity of rival groups. This behaviour, similar to the concept of “occupying the high ground” in warfare, may have deep evolutionary roots, according to researchers at the University of Cambridge. 20,000 hours of recordings revealed that chimps would climb hills at the edge of their territories, rest quietly at the top to listen for nearby rivals, and then decide whether to advance or retreat. While many animals take to higher ground to keep watch, chimp tactics are more sophisticated, anticipating where conflict may occur, assessing risk, and making collective decisions on how to proceed.

Chimpanzee by Nigel Hoult via Flickr.

An agreement has been reached for a loss and damage fund in the run-up to COP28. The fund, which aims to help countries cope with the irreversible effects of climate change, had been established last year at COP27, but negotiations had come to a standstill over which organisation would administer the fund. However, an agreement was reached in Abu Dhabi over the weekend with recommendations to be considered at COP28 which starts in late November in Dubai.

This week in biodiversity news – 30th October 2023


Wildcats are thriving in a Scottish Highlands conservation project with only one death. Nineteen of the cats were released into the wild in the Cairngorms National Park in the summer. Thirteen new kittens that have been bred for the scheme will be released into the wild next summer. Wildcats are one of the rarest and most endangered mammals in the UK. They live in moorland and grassland where they feed on small mammals and ground-nesting birds. Interbreeding with the domestic cat has eroded the wildcat’s genetic diversity. They also face threats from feline disease, road collisions and fragmentation of their habitat. A concerted effort by the Saving Wildcats project which brings together the expertise and skills of a range of national and international organisations provides a glimmer of hope for the species in Scotland.

wildcat in foreground with mouth open
Wildcat by Charlie Marshall via Flickr.

David Attenborough’s Planet Earth III is both horrifying and awe-inspiring, critics have said. The opening episode of the third instalment of the highly acclaimed nature documentary series was viewed by 5.6 million people and has been described as “visually stunning” and “majestic”. The latest series of Planet Earth has a notably darker mood than its predecessors, focusing on animals fighting for survival in the face of constant environmental change.


The mysterious death of 385 elephants in Botswana and Zimbabwe in 2020 was caused by a little-known bacterium, scientists have revealed. Elephants were found walking in circles before suddenly dying by collapsing on their faces in Botswana’s Okavango Delta and north-western Zimbabwe. Tests on the elephants have now shown that the cause was a bacterium called Pasteurella. The bacterium can result in septicaemia under certain conditions and has been linked to the sudden death of around 200,000 saiga antelopes in Kazakhstan.

Elephant on one knee in savanna habitat
Elephant by Mario Micklisch via Flickr.
Climate crisis

Increased melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is unavoidable, according to new research. Scientists ran simulations and found that even under best-case emission scenarios, melting would increase three times faster than during the 20th century. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet holds enough ice to increase global sea levels by up to five meters. Significant sea level rises will be catastrophic for the millions of people living in coastal and low-lying areas.

The Greenland Ice Sheet could experience runaway melting if climate targets are not met. A study in Nature has suggested that the ice sheet’s melting will accelerate significantly if average global temperatures surpass a threshold of 2.3 C above pre-industrial levels. However, the scientists stress that action in the future could reduce ice loss even if the threshold is crossed. They argue that it is cheaper and easier to take action now rather than clawing back towards lower global temperatures later.

ice flow in between two rocky hillsides
Ice flow in Greenland by NASA Earth Observatory via Flickr.

Atlantic hurricanes are more quickly strengthening from weak storms due to climate change. Scientists have said that human-caused climate change is creating the conditions that lead to a quick intensification of storms. Hurricanes are fueled by high ocean surface temperatures which have been increasing in recent years as the world’s oceans have absorbed over 90 percent of the excess warming from fossil fuel emissions. This presents a challenge for coastal communities as forecasting becomes more difficult the quicker a storm intensifies.

cyclone from space in the pacific ocean
Tropical cyclones in the Pacific Ocean by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr.

Countries are deadlocked over a “loss and damage” fund before COP28. The fund was agreed last year at COP27 in Egypt and is designed to help countries recover and rebuild from damage due to climate change. Developing and developed countries are at odds about which organisation should oversee the fund, which countries should pay and who will be eligible to receive funding. Developed countries back the World Bank as the host of the fund; however, developing countries argue that this would give donor countries too much influence over the fund. Talks stalled recently in Aswan, Egypt and the committee responsible for designing the fund will meet again on November 3rd and 4th before the COP28 summit begins later in the month.

£1 billion electric vehicle fund remains unallocated three years after it was first announced. The fund was first announced in March 2020 prior to the first Covid lockdown. The fund was intended to be used to support electrical capacity at service stations to allow for rapid charging of electric vehicles. While 96% of motorway services already have charging stations, increased use of electric vehicles means that there will be a demand for more charging capacity.

black electric car on the side of a street charging up its battery
Electric vehicle on charge by Paul Wilkinson via Flickr.

This week in biodiversity news – 16th October 2023

Extreme heat from climate change may make parts of the Earth uninhabitable. An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the Penn State College of Health and Human Development, Purdue Institute for a Sustainable Future and Purdue University College of Sciences modelled global temperature increases from 1.5°C to 4°C – a worst-case scenario. They found that a further increase of around 1°C would mean that 2.2 billion people would experience many hours of heat that surpass human tolerance thresholds. It would be particularly concerning for residents of high-humidity areas where heatwaves would be considerably more dangerous for human health. 

Dry Cracked Warm Earth by Live Once Live Wild via Flickr

Whales and dolphins in the US are losing food and habitat to climate change, according to a new study. Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that over 70% of American marine mammal species stocks are vulnerable to threats associated with warming waters. This includes shrinking food and habitat availability, changes to ocean chemistry and reduced dissolved oxygen levels. Large whales such as North Atlantic Right Whales and Humpbacks are most at risk from the effects of climate change. This comes on top of new research published in Nature Climate Change that suggests that marine heatwaves are infiltrating deeper parts of the ocean, the consequences of which could have widespread impacts on marine ecosystems. 

Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) Lunge Feeding by Gregory Smith via Flickr


Beavers have been reintroduced to west London for the first time in 400 years. The release of a family of five Eurasian Beavers to wetlands in Ealing comes as part of a push to improve biodiversity and mitigate the impact of climate change. There had been plans to spend money on flood prevention measures in the area but beavers were considered to be a more cost-effective natural solution. 

Canada rejects pleas from environmental groups to protect endangered owl habitat. One wild-born owl remains in British Columbia where logging has severely impacted the species’ old-growth forest habitat. The decision means that the future of the species is uncertain. The rejection of an emergency order for the protection of the owl comes after an eight-month delay since the environment ministry was required by law to recommend an emergency order under the Species at Risk Act. Environmental groups have responded with legal action following the delay. Biologists advise that the species could recover with adequate protection of old-growth forest habitat. 

Extinction Risk 

Almost half of flowering plants could be threatened by extinction, scientists have warned. Researchers analysed data from the World Checklist of Vascular Plants, the world’s most comprehensive database of plants available, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species and found that 45% may be at risk of extinction. Other key findings suggest that 77% of the 19,000 new plants and fungi species discovered since 2020 are endangered and that only 10% of an astounding 2.5 million species of fungi have been discovered. 

Flowering Plant by Choo Yut Shing via Flickr

Similar numbers of male and female sea turtles give hope for the survival of the species. Papua New Guinea’s Conflict Group’s analysis of turtle hatchings between 1960 and 2019 showed that an average of 46.2% have been female. Sea turtles are susceptible to rising temperatures due to their sex determination being temperature dependent. Scientists suggest the results are “likely rare in the global context” with sand temperatures having risen by 0.6°C over the same period. Another study of Green Sea Turtles from the same latitude showed that more than 99% of hatchlings were female, spelling decimation for the population. 

Sea Turtle by Daniel Chodusov via Flickr


A small West African crocodile can moo like a cow, audio recordings reveal. Scientists use audio recordings to monitor elusive crocodile species which are difficult to confirm via visual surveys. The tiny African Dwarf Crocodile (Osteolaemus tetraspis) inhabits the swampy forests of West Africa. Scientists believe that the crocodile is quite common given its common occurrence in the bushmeat trade. Consequently, they are using audio recordings to listen out for its calls and have discovered that the crocodile, surprisingly, moos like a cow. 

West African Dwarf Crocodile (Osteolaemus tetraspis) by Heather Paul via Flickr


Animals fear the sound of a human voice more than that of a lion, according to researchers. A study in South Africa’s Kruger National Park found that, when playing recordings of human voices, 95% of animals were extremely frightened and ran away. Snarling and growling lion recordings provoked significantly less alarm among the wild mammals. The response to the recordings, which included human speech from local languages, suggests that animals have learnt that contact with humans is lethal. Researchers have noted that this may present a challenge for areas relying on wildlife tourism, as visitors can inadvertently scare away animals. 

This week in biodiversity news – 2nd October 2023


Oil-rich states should pay a climate tax, says Gordon Brown. The ex-prime minister has argued that soaring oil prices have caused an inordinate transfer of wealth to oil-rich states from the world’s poorest countries, with global oil and gas revenues soaring to a record $4 trillion. His suggestion of a $25 billion levy would be used as part of a climate fund for poorer countries who are disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change.

Oil rig, California by ElMelindo via Flickr
Conservation in action

Several Wildlife Trusts have launched a new Welsh-English project to restore nature and boost rural prosperity across the historic Marches region. The name of the new project “Wilder Marches” describes the unique natural and cultural landscape spanning the Welsh-English border region. The region measures approximately 100,000 hectares and includes a wide range of natural habitats including ancient woodlands, peatland, flower-rich meadows, and wood pasture. There are also areas of intensive farming and forestry in the region, and the project involving the Herefordshire, Montgomeryshire, Radnorshire and Shropshire Wildlife Trusts seeks to encourage regenerative farming and local sustainable food production.

Meadow by Andrew Gustar via Flickr

Hampshire County Council has secured funding to save endangered UK orchids. The council has secured £98,000 from Natural England to aid its nature recovery project aiming to boost Red- and Long-leaved Helleborines, some of the UK’s rarest orchids. The county contains the East Hampshire Hangers, known for its rare ancient woodland, which provides a habitat for the rare orchids.

Science and research

Psychologists have received funding for a three-year project to investigate meerkat responses to human emotions. The scientists at Nottingham Trent University are seeking to better understand the impact of zoo visitors on animals. The research will investigate whether meerkats demonstrate empathy by mirroring people’s emotions. They hope that the study will improve our understanding of human-animal interactions and may have implications for how zoo animals are managed.

Meerkat by Ulrika via Flickr

Carbon offset schemes in the United States may be ineffective according to new research. Researchers looking to assess farmer perspectives on soil carbon offset programmes put in place since 2017 found that farmers were largely using the schemes as “gravy on top” of what they were already doing. They largely considered payments to be too low to incentivise new adoption of practices that would increase carbon sequestration. As a result, carbon credits have largely been generated from farmers who were already motivated to improve soil and crop health with the aim of securing long-term economic sustainability.

Extinction risk

Global rhino numbers are recovering despite poaching and habitat loss. In a win for conservation, rhinoceros numbers have bounced back to 27,000, new figures show. Black Rhinos, native to east and southern Africa, and Southern White Rhinos, found in the south of Africa, have seen an uptick in their numbers since last year. The increase has been attributed to efforts by conservationists to establish new populations which have continued to grow. Javan and Sumatran Rhinos, however, appear to remain on course to go extinct with only tiny pockets remaining in southeast Asia. Experts believe there may be as few as 34 remaining in a fragmented forest landscape where finding mates is increasingly difficult.

Rhino, Caprivi, Namibia by s9-4pr

One in six species are at risk of extinction in Great Britain, according to a new report. The 203-page State of Nature report, produced by more than 60 conservation organisations, found that 16% of 10,000 amphibians, birds, insects, mammals and plants are threatened. Iconic species such as the Turtle Dove and the Hazel Dormouse are among the list. Nature conservation organisations urge more investment in nature and an increased uptake of environmentally-friendly farming practices. Studies have shown that such practices can boost both production and biodiversity, likely due to the increased presence of insects that pollinate plants. The government has highlighted its pledge to protect 30% of land for nature by 2030, but conservationists have argued that more needs to be done to reverse declines.

Climate crisis

Antarctic sea ice is at a ‘mind-blowing low’, experts have warned. The quantity of sea ice surrounding Antarctica is far below previous winter levels. The total area of ice this year measures 1.5 million square kilometres less than the September average, a reduction equivalent to five times the size of the British Isles. Polar experts have warned that such low levels of sea ice could have major global consequences. Antarctic sea ice regulates the earth’s climate by reflecting light back into the atmosphere and cooling Antarctic waters. Dark areas of the ocean exposed as sea ice melts absorb sunlight and this leads to further warming.

Antarctica by Pedro Szekely via Flickr

UK firefighters are heading to Spain for specialist training after a twofold increase in recorded wildfires last year. Once a rarity in the UK, the EU’s Copernicus earth observation system has recorded the burning of 126,618 hectares since 2006. Accordingly, UK fire services are investing in new equipment and specialist training with some firefighters being sent to Catalonia – a region with a long history of tackling blazes. With temperatures exceeding 40°C for the first time last summer, the expectation is that wildfires will continue to become both more frequent and extreme.


This Week in Biodiversity News – 18th September 2023

Policy and diplomacy

The House of Lords will debate mandatory Swift bricks in England. New homes may be required to build Swift bricks into new homes if the amendment is passed in parliament. The hollow bricks are unobtrusive and are relatively easy to install. The presence of these bricks in new homes would help to revive a rapidly declining Swift population and other red-listed cavity-nesting species such as House Martins and Starlings. Swift populations have declined by more than 60% since the mid-1990s.

Swift bird perching on a barbed wire in the air
Swift perching on a wire. Image by Jo Garbutt via Flickr.

The UK government is preparing to revoke the ban on new onshore windfarms, according to reports. New guidance will require action from developers on the concerns and suggestions of residents, and council approval will depend on community support. The new rules will also give local authorities more discretion over the location of new onshore projects. Since 2015, there has been a de facto ban on new onshore windfarms as only a single objection is needed to prevent construction.

African leaders demand more support and financing as the first Africa Climate Summit opens. Africa has a population of 1.3 billion people and is projected to be worst hit by the effects of the climate crisis, despite contributing relatively little to the problem. Consequently, frustration has mounted in some countries at being asked to develop in cleaner ways than richer, more polluting countries.

Leaders meeting in front of flags at a summit.
African leaders meeting at a summit. Image by Embassy of Equatorial Guinea via Flickr.
Climate crisis

Respiratory illness patients are most at risk from climate change, according to an expert report. People with conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Higher temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events will likely lead to an increase in airborne allergens, air pollution, humidity and mould. Babies and children, whose lungs are still developing, are thought to be particularly at risk.

Groundwater depletion rates could triple in India as climate warms, according to researchers. A recent study by researchers at the University of Michigan has revealed that rising temperatures have led to an increase in the withdrawal of groundwater for irrigation by farmers in India. This could result in tripled groundwater loss by 2080, posing a threat to food and water security, as well as the livelihoods of over a third of India’s population of 1.4 billion.

Tractor and farmers with a big pile of hay on a road with green vegetation around it
Indian farmers close to the city of Madurai. Image by Surajram Kumaravel via Flickr.
Science and Technology

Scientists have discovered a technique for turning plastic waste into tiny bars of soap. The researchers found that it was possible to “upcycle” plastic waste into high-value surfactants. Surfactants are a key ingredient in a range of products from lubricants to soaps and detergents. Only around 10% of plastic waste is recycled and so experts are increasingly exploring solutions for turning waste into valuable materials. The technique only produces tiny amounts of surfactant at a time, but the hope is that the process can be scaled up in the future.

Extinction Risk

St Kilda has seen a dramatic fall in seabird numbers. Since the previous census in 1999, there has been a 64% decline in seabirds on the remote archipelago west of Scotland. The National Trust for Scotland conducted the first full survey in 24 years, finding a steep decline in the numbers of Fulmars, Guillemots, Razorbills and Kittiwakes. Kittiwakes were found to have fallen by 84%, Razorbills and Guillemots by more than 35%. Fulmar numbers dropped by over 45,000 on the islands. The dramatic declines are thought to be due in part to climate change and reductions of natural prey.

Guillemots sitting on the ledge of a cliff
Guillemots at Blackers Hole, Dorset. Image by Donald Macauley via Flickr.

Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest continues to decline according to Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE). This marks the fifth consecutive month of decrease in deforestation in the region. The INPE’s deforestation alert system DETER showed that there was a 66% decline in forest clearing compared to the same month last year. The system has likewise shown a 43% decline in deforestation in the first eight months of 2023 when compared to the previous year. This follows commitments by Brazil’s president Lula da Silva to curtail the enormous forest losses seen over the past four years under the previous administration.

Read More

See our previous biodiversity news stories covering topics from bee-killing hornets to an flooding-earthquake disaster in California.

This Week in Biodiversity News – 28th August 2023

Science and Research

Mountain treelines are ascending due to climate change. Scientists at the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China, used remote sensing technology to analyse mountain tree cover. The results show that 70% of mountain treelines moved upwards during the period between 2000 and 2010. Trees are moving fastest in the tropical regions at an average of 3.1 meters a year; the movement is accelerating with time. The changes in tree distribution could be catastrophic for some species. Alpine species are especially at risk of being crowded out by the treeline moving uphill.

River with trees and mountains in the background
Alaskan treeline. Image by Peter Rintels via Flickr.
Climate crisis

Earthquake and rare tropical storm Hilary strike southern California at the same time. The storm brought rains of 10 to 12cm and caused power outages, flooding and mudslides across the region. Southern California, which usually experiences persistent drought, is vulnerable to rainstorms. Flash floods and mudslides hit the region while a 5.1 magnitude earthquake struck near Oxnard north of Los Angles. No immediate reports of damage were reported.

Broken trees with muddy landscape after a mudsline
Devastation after a mudslide. Image by Governor Jay Inslee via Flickr.

Canada deploys its military forces to tackle extreme wildfires in British Columbia. 35,000 people have been evacuated in the western province in what has been described as a “extraordinarily serious situation” by the country’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Fires are also raging in Canada’s Northwest Territories with its capital city, Yellowknife, under threat and having been evacuated. The world has seen an unprecedented summer of wildfires with sweeping fires in Hawaii and the Mediterranean, prompting calls for action on the climate crisis.


Ecuadorians have voted against oil extraction in Yasuní National Park in a nationwide referendum. 5.2 million people voted to prevent further drilling of crude oil in the National Park with 3.6 million voting against. Excavations have been underway since 2016 with 57,000 barrels of oil being produced per day. The protected area is home to a delicate rainforest ecosystem and indigenous communities. Oil spills, road construction and drilling provoked a fierce response from many indigenous and environmental groups culminating in the recent referendum victory. State oil company Petroecuador now has one year to withdraw from the region. Advocates for the drilling including some indigenous communities have argued that stopping the drilling will arrest development in the region and deprive the country of $1.2 billion in revenue.

Waterfall dropping over a cliff into a pool in the middle of a hilly rainforest.
Waterfall in Yasuní National Park, Ecuador. Image by Alan & Flora Botting via Flickr.

Mexico announces the creation of 13 new protected areas with three more expected to be declared by the end of the month. The six new national parks and seven protected areas cover 17,918 hectares ranging from the Mexican states of Baja California and Baja California Sur to Oaxaca and Guerrero. The new additions bring the total number of federally protected areas in Mexico to 200.

Kielder conservation efforts see 11 young ospreys fledging this year. The Kielder Osprey Project in Northumberland National Park has helped 114 osprey chicks take their inaugural flights in 15 years. The success comes after ospreys were extinct in England for most of the 20th century. The recently fledged chicks will practice their hunting and flying skills over the next few weeks as they build up body fat reserves before they begin a 3,000-mile migration to Africa for the winter.

Osprey bird gliding through the air with a fish between its talons.
Osprey with its typical prey – a fish. Image by texaus1 via Flickr.
Extinction risk

Reports of bee-killing Asian hornets have risen to their highest point yet in the UK. The invasive hornet kills and dismembers its prey and presents a significant threat to native UK bee species. The hornet species first arrived in Europe in 2004 and has since caused havoc in France where they have devastated national honeybee populations. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in the UK has launched an eradication program in response to sightings in the UK. Once the hornets have become established, they are nearly impossible to eliminate. Some success has been seen in the Channel Islands where an army of volunteers are working to counter the hornets, employing techniques like triangulation and tiny radio tags to find and destroy hornet nests. However, there are doubts about how effective this action would be over a much larger area like that of the UK. A total of 39 have been spotted in the UK with 16 of those sightings occurring this year including locations as far north as Newcastle upon Tyne.

Close up face of a Asian hornet.
Male Asian hornet (Vespa velutina). Image by Gilles San Martin via Flickr.

A tiny river fly has been brought back from the brink after a successful breeding scheme. The critically endangered insect, the scarce yellow sally, is a type of stone fly that was thought to have become extinct in the UK decades ago. However, after several of the flies were discovered in the River Dee, a successful breeding programme was launched at Chester Zoo. Scientists plan to release the tiny insect in the future, but concerns remain about the health of Britain’s rivers. The tiny stonefly requires pristine conditions to survive, however, only a small percentage of Britain’s waterways are considered to be at Good Ecological Status within the Water Framework Directive.

Read More

See our previous biodiversity news stories covering topics from beaver reintroductions to falcon trafficking.

This Week in Biodiversity News – 14th August 2023

Science and Research 

Scientists in the US have achieved net energy gain in a nuclear fusion reaction for a second time. This comes after a successful initial breakthrough test in December of last year. Nuclear fusion involves using heat energy to fuse two elements into forming a larger element and in the process releasing a burst of energy. If successful, this process could open the door to a potentially near-infinite supply of clean energy. However, scientists have cautioned that the technology is far from solving the climate crisis as significant hurdles remain before fusion power plants can be up and running. 

nuclear power plant by a river
Nuclear fission plant. Image by Tony Fischer via Flickr.

Researchers are using machine learning to help identify underground fungal networks. Mycorrhizal fungi form an interface with plant roots and play an important role in nutrient and water transfer from the soil. They are also an important carbon store with a predicted 13 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide moving from plants to mycorrhizal networks each year. The Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN) is working to map mycorrhizal fungal networks across the world and, to aid this, they are employing a combination of remote-sensing technology and machine-learning algorithms. The algorithms are used to predict zones of high mycorrhizal diversity which researchers can then survey and take samples for laboratory analysis.

Climate Crisis 

Oceans have hit their hottest temperature yet spelling dire consequences for marine biodiversity. Temperatures reached 20.96°C beating the 2016 record according to the EU’s Copernicus climate change service.  Changing ocean temperatures can cause shifts in marine species distributions, impacting marine food webs. There has also been widespread coral bleaching as a result of changing temperatures. Rocketing ocean temperatures come after global average temperature records were broken on multiple occasions last month.

Bleached coral. Image by National Marine Sanctuaries via Flickr.

Wildfires have swept across the island of Maui with close to 100 deaths and many more missing. The town of Lahaina with a population of almost 13,000 was mostly destroyed in the worst Hawaiian natural disaster in more than 60 years. The incident comes after a wave of wildfires hit the South of Europe in July. Scientists have warned that climate change is creating conditions which make it much more likely for wildfires to spread. Wildfires are common in parts of Hawaii, but the scale of the recent blaze is largely unprecedented.


Three baby beaver kits have been born in Somerset according to the National Trust. The kits were born on two different National Trust sites on the Holnicote Estate near Minehead. Beavers were initially introduced to the site in 2020, more than 400 years since beavers were last seen on Exmoor. The presence of beavers has considerably altered the water levels at the sites encouraging other species such as water voles, amphibians, fish and otters. 

Beaver by a river staring at the camera
Beaver. Image by Deborah Freeman via Flickr.
Extinction Risk

Falcon trafficking has soared in the Middle East driving a decline of wild populations in the region. Falconry is a popular sport in the oil-rich gulf countries of the Arabian Peninsula where there is a high demand for wild peregrine and saker falcons which are prised for their hunting abilities. Trade in wild falcons is restricted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). High poverty rates in Syria, Iraq and Jordan, however, have driven many to the lucrative trade where enforcement by authorities is a low priority following decades of civil war and conflict.

saker falcon on falconers glove
Saker Falcon. Image by Ferran Pestaña via Flickr.

Scientists have found two new types of mole in eastern Turkey. Talpa hakkariensis and Talpa davidiana tatvanensis were confirmed by DNA analysis to be biologically distinct from closely related moles. The two new types of moles live in the mountainous terrain of eastern Turkey surviving extreme temperatures and weather conditions. 

South American frogs may be communicating with each other through the bioluminescence of their skin according to scientists. Fluorescence was first shown to be naturally occurring in amphibians in 2017 which initiated further research into the phenomenon. Researchers captured 528 frogs in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru and found that all 151 frog species tested showed some degree of fluorescence. Fluorescence may make for a more noticeable display during mating calls in low light conditions. Green fluorescence is present in the vocal sac region of the frogs, and as the frogs call this region expands and contracts. Orange fluorescence could act as a warning signal to predators or serve as camouflage.

Read More

See our previous biodiversity news stories covering topics from white-tailed eagle reintroductions to North Atlantic right whales.