With threats to wildlife constantly increasing, conservation policies are being put in place in order to protect biodiversity. However, with limited resources available, these policies have to attempt to prioritise certain species according to their “value”. New research, led by Newcastle University, the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and the British Trust for Ornithology, has shown that prioritising based only on one key species “value” could put some of our best loved wildlife at risk.
The research, which focuses on UK farmland birds, categorises according to three core values – conservation priority value, economic value (consumers of weed-seeds) and cultural value, measured through poetry.
Mark Whittingham, Professor of Applied Ecology at Newcastle University, explains:
“Considering one value in isolation gives you a very skewed picture of what’s important and what isn’t.
“Birds such as the chaffinch might consume large numbers of weed seeds which helps farmers, but they aren’t rare and compared to other species they barely feature in poetry.
“Conversely, the crow isn’t rare and isn’t particularly useful for eating weed seeds but we found it features frequently in poems down the ages which suggests it is intrinsically linked with society and culture. The question is how you put a ‘value’ on this.”
Professor Whittingham says that although this study only looks at a small selection of the potential ways individual species can be valued for different purposes, based on the evidence the more values that are considered the more species are likely to be important.
“Prioritisation makes sense when you have scarce resources but there is an inherent danger that by going down that route we take our eye off those species that are just as valuable to us but in less tangible ways.
“What we have demonstrated is that the more ‘values’ you take into account the more you realise that every species is important and has a part to play and so we need to be considering this in our policies and strategies for natural resource management and future planning.”
Protecting biodiversity is a pressing issue with habitats and species being lost at a devastating rate. Ensuring that the most valuable species are prioritised is vital to the success of certain conservation policies, however, as Newcastle University research proves, placing “value” on a species can be a tricky process and a whole range of things need to be considered in order to best grasp the impact an animal has both culturally and environmentally.
Find out more about Newcastle University’s ecology and conservation research here.
From droughts to flooding, all around the world water related crises are getting increasingly worse. The combination of climate change and environmental damage mean we will be facing more severe weather than previously predicted.
Research conducted by Newcastle University has analysed changes in flooding, droughts and heatwaves for all European cities. The study shows that there will be worsening heatwaves for all 571 cities, with increased drought conditions in southern Europe and an increase to river flooding in north-western Europe. Britain is predicted to be hit by some of the worst flood conditions; we are facing a future in which “half of UK cities could see at least a 50% increase on peak river flows“.
Lead investigator of the study, Professor Richard Dawson, explains:
“The research highlights the urgent need to design and adapt our cities to cope with these future conditions.
“We are already seeing first hand the implications of extreme weather events in our capital cities. In Paris the Seine rose more than 4 metres above its normal water level. And as Cape Town prepares for its taps to run dry, this analysis highlights that such climate events are feasible in European cities too.”
Today, around 1.9 billion people live in potentially severely water-scarce areas, this could increase to around 3 billion by 2050. Of the water that is available, the quality is an issue across the globe with 80% of wastewater flowing back into the environment without being treated or reused and an estimated 1.8 billion people using an unimproved source of drinking water. Due to a growing population, by 2050, global water demand could be up to 30% higher than it is today (United Nations).
In line with Newcastle University’s research, the United Nation‘s also state that flooding will increase globally, with the number of people at risk rising from 1.2 billion today to 1.6 billion in 2050 – nearly 20% of the population.
The United Nation’s World Water Day highlights that the solutions to many of these issues already exist within nature: “planting new forests, reconnecting rivers to floodplains, and restoring wetlands will rebalance the water cycle and improve human health and livelihoods.”
Research led by Paul Quinn & Jennine Jonczyk at Newcastle University is looking at ways in which we can work with nature, in both rural and urban settings, to help ease floods and droughts. Natural engineering aims to compliment traditional engineering approaches, by finding ways that features in the landscape can be used to hold water and benefit the ecosystem.
Examples of natural engineering include placing ‘leaky ponds’ to manage run-off, which fill up during a storm and gradually drain out over time, or planting trees in locations where they will soak up the most water.
For cities it means dealing with water above ground instead of forcing it into drainage systems below which may easily reach capacity during heavy rainfall. This includes installing swales on the sides of roads to prevent surface flooding or making surfaces permeable for the water to seep through.
Using nature-based solutions will help us to meet the water needs of an ever expanding population, whilst simultaneously helping us protect the natural environment. Research from Newcastle University is helping countries all around the globe work towards meeting the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 6 which commits the world to ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030.
This series of Blue Planet has enabled us to see so much of the ocean that we are normally unaware of; we’ve been able to truly appreciate the magnificence of the seas all the way from the deepest trenches to the rocky coasts. But for many, with this appreciation has come the realisation of the devastating impact of human activity on our planet’s marine life.
Marine researchers at Newcastle University have been working to assess the extent of human impact on the ocean, looking at everything from chemical and plastic pollution to CO2 levels and increasing sea temperatures.
A research team led by Newcastle University’s Dr Alan Jamieson, used deep sea landers to reach the bottom of the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana and Kermadec trenches, to bring up samples of the organisms that live there.
The fatty tissue of the amphipods they sampled contained extremely high levels of Persistent Organic Pollutants – or POPs – including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were banned in the 1970’s. Such pollutants are invulnerable to environmental degradation and will remain in the environment for decades.
Dr Jamieson believes these pollutants will have found their way to the depths of the trenches through contaminated debris and dead animals sinking to the bottom of the ocean, which then work their way up through the food chain.
Sending the deep sea landers down to the ocean floor.
Man’s plastic footprint
Following on from this study which revealed shocking levels of chemicals in the deep, Dr Jamieson began to investigate whether plastics had also polluted to the same extent.
Using the deep sea landers to bring samples to the surface, the research team examined 90 individual animals and found ingestion of plastic ranged from 50% in the New Hebrides Trench to 100% at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
Dr Jamieson explained that this type of work requires a great deal of contamination control, but that the results were undeniable, with instances where synthetic fibres could actually be seen in the stomach contents of the specimen as they were being removed.
“The fact that we found such extraordinary levels of these pollutants in one of the most remote and inaccessible habitats on earth really brings home the long term, devastating impact that mankind is having on the planet,” says Dr Jamieson.
“It’s not a great legacy that we’re leaving behind.”
Pollutants such as plastic and chemicals are not the only issues our seas face; the oceans also absorb a large amount of heat and CO2 from human emissions. Of the emissions absorbed by the global ocean, the Southern Ocean takes a staggering 75% of the heat and 50% of the CO2.
A team from Newcastle University, comprised of Dr Miguel Morales Maqueda, Alethea Mountford and Liam Rogerson, are in the Antarctic as part of the ORCHESTRA research project (Ocean Regulation of Climate by Heat and Carbon Sequestration and Transports).
Explaining the involvement in the project, Dr Maqueda said: “We have been invited to participate in ORCHESTRA on account of our expertise in the use of surface robotic systems to carry out sea surface measurements.
We use a Wave Glider, which is an unmanned vehicle, to conduct surveys of the ocean surface, measuring properties such as near-surface meteorology (wind, air pressure and air temperature), waves, ocean temperature and currents. The Wave Glider relays this information back to base via satellite.”
The aim is to use these oceanography surveys to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms that lead to the transfer of heat and greenhouse gases from the atmosphere into the ocean and how they are subsequently distributed globally.
Research vessel RRS James Clark Ross, where the team will be based.
Humans are undoubtedly having an increasingly negative impact on the ocean. When faced with this fact it becomes all too easy to lose hope, but pioneering research such as that from Newcastle University works to highlight the serious issues at hand and as such people are becoming more aware of how everyday actions can have wider consequences for the environment.
We need only take a look at the solutions that Newcastle researchers have developed for the disastrous episodes of coral bleaching around the globe to illustrate that advancements in ideas and technology are being made all the time to work to reduce and reverse negative human impact.
If you feel inspired to make a difference to the marine world, take a look at the courses offered at Newcastle University in Marine Science and Marine Technology.
In this blog post, Dr Will Reid shares his story of how he became a marine biologist and the inspiration that led him to his exciting career choice
Blue Planet II is well underway now and for many a marine biologist, like myself, it is an opportunity to say, “I work on those” and get a bit giddy with excitement. We have seen some wonderful footage of walruses, the graceful Ethereal snailfish and colourful coral polyps. The bobbit worm seemed to get the hospital that my partner works at very excited and I’m sure last week’s episode about plastic pollution will get many people thinking about the impact our daily lives have on the ocean.
For me personally, sitting watching the second episode of Blue Planet II and seeing those hydrothermal vents was a personal highlight. It will also go down as a big landmark in my research career. I spent about four months at sea in the Antarctic across three research expeditions, during my PhD at Newcastle University. I was part of team working on the hydrothermal vents where those crabs covered in bacteria live. The inspiration that lead me to sitting on a ship, watching a video feed from a remotely operated vehicle over two kilometers below, began with another David Attenborough documentary. This was not Blue Planet I but an even earlier BBC documentary series called Life in the Freezer, which planted the seed in my mind about becoming a marine biologist.
Becoming a Marine Biologist
Life in the Freezer aired in 1993. I was thirteen at the time. The opening scene where David Attenborough was standing in a vast snow and ice landscape was mesmerising. The series covered the ebb and flow of the ice around Antarctica and the animals that depend on the productive waters of the Southern Ocean. The part that really caught me was all the amazing life on the island of South Georgia. The coastal areas were packed full of elephant seals, fur seals, penguins, petrels and albatross. Little did I know that in just over ten years I would be living and working on the island.
I realised during that series that I wanted to be a scientist but not just any scientist, one that went to the Antarctic. I took Maths, English, History, Biology and Chemistry Highers and got onto a marine biology degree course. In my final year, I got my first opportunity to do some work related to South Georgia. I spent hours watching video footage of the deep-sea Patagonian toothfish and crabs attracted to baited deep-sea landers as part of my final year project. This was very fortunate because just as I was about to graduate a job working for British Antarctic Survey was advertised for a two-year fisheries scientist working on South Georgia on these animals. I applied. I got an interview. I didn’t get the job.
First disappointment, then an opportunity
The great thing about getting an interview is that you can often ask for feedback. So, I just asked the question “What skills and experience do I need to get the job?”. The answer sent me on a two-year mission in order to get what I needed second time round. This included: going back to university and doing a masters in Oceanography; learning to drive boats; sea survival training; and going to sea as a fisheries observer on a Portuguese deep-water trawler off Canada. My decision paid off because the job was advertised again. Once more I applied. Once more I got an interview.
Second time lucky
I got the job at British Antarctic Survey second time round. I was finally going to South Georgia! The next few weeks were a whirlwind of activity: medicals; advanced boat driving training; first aid courses; and learning to drive a JCB. Then I was finally deployed. I flew to down through South America to the Falkland Islands with part of the team that I would living and working with for the next two years. We sailed from the Falklands on the UK research vessel, the James Clark Ross, to South Georgia. I arrived in South Georgia on the 22nd November 2004.
The island of South Georgia was truly stunning. I spent two years on the island doing science that helped manage the commercial fisheries around the island. The research was varied. I worked on fish larvae, managed an aquarium which housed crabs, aged Patagonian toothfish using their ear bones called otoliths, undertook diet studies on icefish and went on fish stock assessments around the island.
The scenery and animal life were also truly amazing. I would go camping and hiking in order to visit Gentoo, king and rock hopper penguin colonies; climb snow-capped mountains; walk where explorers like Shackleton had been; and visit old abandoned whaling stations. The research base where I stayed was also in front of an elephant seal breeding beach for a couple of months of the year. I even met my current partner on the island. She was the doctor in my second year. But life on South Georgia had to come to an end.
Getting into hot water in Antarctica
Once I left South Georgia, I had a couple more months working for British Antarctic Survey back in Cambridge. I was wondering how on earth I would ever get back to the Antarctic. I stumbled across my next opportunity in the photocopy room. On the wall was an advert for a PhD at Newcastle University working on Antarctic hydrothermal vents. I applied. I got the PhD position. I moved to Newcastle.
The PhD was part of 5 year NERC programme trying to find and understand hydrothermal vents in the Antarctic. Hydrothermal vents are sites on the seafloor that release very hot fluids, rich in minerals into the water at the bottom of the ocean and are surrounded by high densities of life.
In 2010, I went back to the Antarctic as part of the first scientific expedition to sample these truly amazing habitats. We sailed on the UK science vessel, the James Cook with scientists from different universities around the UK. When we arrived at our first location, we used a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to dive down over 2 kms to hunt for the vents. After a number of hours searching the seafloor we eventually found our first hydrothermal vent field. There was a huge amount of relief on the boat as the scientists got to work.
We visited a series of sites over the next 6 weeks along the East Scotia Ridge. We discovered whole new communities and species and mapped where the different animals lived around the vents. My work focused on what the animals were eating and constructing food webs at each of the sites we visited.
This brings me back to those hydrothermal vent crabs in The Deep episode of Blue Plant II. The crabs live in areas where hot water pores over them which provides the conditions for the bacteria to grow. We collected the samples from the vents using a suction sampler on the ROV Isis. I then looked at the biochemical composition of the crabs and the bacteria. They were very similar. This indicated that the bacteria living on those crabs were its food source.
These large-scale scientific expeditions are collaborative efforts. Scientist never undertake their work in isolation on these types of projects. They are a team effort, bringing together scientific disciplines. I worked with scientists that had backgrounds in chemistry, geology, microbiology, biology, computer science and supported by mechanical and electrical engineers, technicians and a large ships crew. There is no way I could have undertaken this work without the support of so many scientific and technical disciplines. They helped me add meaning to my work and place the results in the context of the system.
Will there be another Antarctic adventure?
Watching Blue Planet II the other weekend gave me a huge amount of personal pride. To sit there with my kids and my partner and show them on TV the Antarctic crab that I helped discover felt like a massive landmark in my scientific career. I was even there at the moment when the crab stuck its claw into the hot water. Life in the Freezer was the series that inspired me to work in the Antarctic, which set me on the road (or boat) to South Georgia for 2 years and then to studying for my PhD at Newcastle University.
For many people, Blue Planet II will inspire them too, some of whom will go into marine science as well. Whether you are into maths, biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, geology or microbiology, there is a career for you that involves our Blue Planet.
For me, I am about to start another Antarctic adventure. Next year, I am going to explore the seabed that has not been exposed to open waters for approximately 120,000 years. I’ll be spending about 3 weeks working in the area where a large chunk of the Larsen C ice-shelf broke off. The research team has been assembled from a number of different universities and institutions and will once more be a collaborative effort. It just goes to show that sometime adventures never truly end.
The United Nations have designated the 19th November as “World Toilet Day”, whilst the title may seem chuckle worthy, it actually exists to inspire action to tackle a very serious global crisis. 60% of the world’s population do not have access to adequate toilet facilities in their home – this can lead to wastewater flowing back into the ecosystem completely untreated, which in turn exposes humans to potentially fatal bacteria and diseases.
Newcastle University’s Professor David Graham, who investigates antibiotic resistance, was involved in a study which focused on the Ganges River in the foothills of the Himalayas. Each year masses of pilgrims descend on sacred sites along the river to bathe in the water. The existing waste handling systems in these areas cannot cope with the demand and ultimately, untreated human wastes ends up in the river.
Water sediment samples from the rivers show strains of antibiotic resistant gene levels about 60 times greater per capita when the pilgrims are present compared with other times of the year. Once in the water these genes may then be ingested by other users of the river, potentially creating widespread antibiotic resistance.
Professor David Graham explains: “In the age of international travel, antibiotic resistance genes and organisms in the gut of individuals as a result of inadequate sanitation can be carried anywhere, exposing wider populations to such resistance.
We know that many ‘hotspots’ of antibiotic resistance exist around the world, particularly in densely populated areas, such as urban Africa, the subcontinent and Latin America, where there is inconsistent sanitation and generally poorer water quality.
If we can stem the spread of such antibiotic resistant genes locally – possibly through improved local sanitation and waste treatment – we have a better chance of limiting its spread on a global scale.”
Professor Graham’s work has influenced policy on an international level; presenting evidence to the US Presidential Advisory Council on Combatting Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria he explained that that current policy underestimates the importance of improving water quality and waste management at global scales, which is key to reducing antibiotic resistance in health systems around the world.
For more information on how Newcastle University is working towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals visit ncl.ac.uk/globalchallenges.
Coral reefs are among the most bio-diverse eco-systems on the planet, but climate change and human interference threaten to destroy these essential marine environments. Research led by Newcastle University focuses on adapting and restoring coral in order to protect reefs.
What is coral and why is it important?
Corals are what are known as “sessile” animals, this means that they permanently take root to the ocean floor, much like a plant, however, corals are not plants as they do not produce their own food. Each coral is made up of thousands of tiny coral creatures known as polyps. Corals have a symbiotic relationship with a form of algae known as “zooxanthellae” that lives inside the corals’ tissues – the algae are what give coral its bright colours.
Coral reefs provide a habitat for around 25% of all marine life, with estimates suggesting reefs support the livelihood of around 2 million different species. In addition to the essential role they play in sustaining ocean health, coral reefs also contribute to the prevention of coastal erosion as well as helping to provide food security and income for millions of people in coastal communities.
Beautiful, bright coral reefs provide homes for an array of creatures such as this crinoid. Photos by Tim Dixon.
What threatens the survival of coral reefs?
Human interference with marine life, through practices such as fishing, tourism and pollution have a negative effect on the health of coral reefs. One of the biggest threats which is likely to cause coral reefs to bleach, and eventually die, is climate change. Corals are sensitive to changes in water temperature and cannot survive if the temperature rises too much. Climate change has already had an effect on water temperatures in certain areas of the world, and this is predicted to get worse over the coming decades.
A clown fish peeks out from a sea anemone attached to a coral reef. Photo by Tim Dixon.
What is being done to protect coral reefs?
Whilst existing conservation measures such as Marine Protected Areas are vital when it comes to protecting reefs from the damages of human impact, other solutions are required to help coral species adapt to changes in environmental conditions such as increasing sea temperatures.
With the continued threat of climate change and how it might affect corals hanging over their heads, scientists at Newcastle University are conducting a pioneering study into the “feasibility of using selective breeding and an innovative mass re-population method to help corals affected by bleaching.”
Professor of Coral Reef Biology, John Bythell, explains: “During coral bleaching events, it is possible to observe healthy colonies next to bleached colonies, suggesting that some corals are better adapted to higher temperatures. This means that one possible solution could be to selectively breed corals that can withstand higher than normal temperatures and successfully pass this onto offspring.”
The ground-breaking five-year “Assisting Coral Reef Survival in the Face of Climate Change” project will face many challenges; Dr Guest explains that the assisted evolution approach will “involve certain risks for recipient populations such as resource trade-offs between heat tolerance, growth and reproduction.”
If the team are successful in passing on the desirable traits to coral offspring they will then transplant the coral onto damaged reefs using a technique already developed by Newcastle University.
Coral reefs support the livelihood of a huge array of creatures. Photos by Tim Dixon.
After challenging expensive and often ineffective existing coral transplantation strategies which focus on “attaching fast-growing coral species onto damaged reefs to speed their recovery”, a team of scientists at Newcastle University developed a more cost-effective solution centered around the use of more robust, slow-growing coral species.
Using plastic wall plugs, an object more commonly used to fit screws into brickwork, Newcastle University’s team created coral “plug-ins”, where they grow healthy corals on cement cylinders which have been embedded with the plastic wall plugs. These coral “plug-ins” can then be slotted into pre-drilled holes in damaged reefs.
The hope is that through the use of the innovative techniques developed by Newcastle University led research, coral reefs will be given the ability to thrive and continue to provide a habitat for millions of marine species for generations to come.
A pygmy seahorse camouflaged among the coral. Photo by Tim Dixon.
If this post has sparked your interest and you want to find out more about Newcastle University’s research then head over to ncl.ac.uk/nes/research/marine.