Natural Environment Blog
Not all wildlife is created equal in our eyes. Take the earthworm, which doesn’t have the widespread appeal of larger, more charismatic animals such as gorillas, tigers or pandas. Worms are never going to get a strong cute response, and they won’t ever be the face of a conservation campaign. But what Darwin rightly recognised is that – panda fans avert your eyes – worm conservation is much more important once we factor in their provision of what we now call “ecosystem services”, which are crucial to human survival.
When observing the Northern elephant seal colonies found dotted along the Californian coast from December to March each year, one feature stands out above all others: size. Female elephant seals can weigh up to 750 kg, which is fairly impressive, until you see one next to a 2,300 kg male – that’s a male:female size… Read More ›
After a lot of hard work, the London NERC DTP cohort 3 have submitted their project proposals, and it’s finally time to take a break from the computer and get out into the field for the #DTPCalifornia Field Training Course 2017! Our 10-day field course aims to give the first-year PhD students a broad introduction… Read More ›
The world is noisy. In cities, we find ourselves constantly surrounded by the moan of motors, the screech of sirens, and the prattle of people. So much so, that we often crave the peace and quiet of the countryside. But silence is hard to find, even in nature.
I’m sure you’ve heard of man-made global warming. But here I want to explain a fundamental cause of natural climate change, to make it easier to understand the difference between the two.
Back in March 2016, I remember that feeling of sudden dread at the prospect of organising my first field campaign. Where do you start?
Of all the plants used for festive decorations, mistletoe is perhaps the most intriguing. It is an evergreen with a curious parasitic nature, a fascinating history, and a surprising number of medicinal properties.
It can be easy to view science in its own bubble, but we need applied research to test questions that really matter to science industry, commercial business and national and international policy. It’s important that we create channels to feed research questions coming out of these non-academic organisations into Universities and academic settings, and for the hard-earned results of our research to inform their policies, designs and practises. In November this year, cohort 3 had a chance to meet some of our associate partner organisations and hear about their research questions.
There is something strangely satisfying about conquering a full day of dirty, dusty fieldwork in the thorny African bush, in the kind of heat that cooks your lunch for you if you forget it outside. True story. Surviving hacking out soil samples in 45 degrees for many many hours does give you a serious sense of achievement and some epic tan lines to go with it, but why this trial by sunburn?
Co-Organising a conference for the first time is like doing a PhD, just in six months and as a group. You begin your endeavour with only a vague idea of what lies ahead of you, later realise that things take longer/are pricier than expected and everything culminates in a stressful climax mixed with gratification and relief that everything somehow worked just as expected.
The rather grandly named Dinosaur Provincial Park is a world-famous geological site in Alberta, Canada. It is perhaps the best place on Earth to find the remains of dinosaurs, which has earned it the status of UNESCO World Heritage Site. In August 2016 I paid a visit to DPP and the Tyrrell along with a group of 15 undergraduates from Queen Mary, University of London (QMUL).
A huge welcome to the third cohort of the London NERC DTP, who started their PhD’s today! I’m your Impact and Innovation Officer – which means over the next few months I’ll be helping you to develop collaborations with industry, NGOs and other non-academic partners; I’ll be helping teach you academic and popular writing, and… Read More ›
What killed off the dinosaurs? As one of the most famous events in geological history, you might expect scientists would long have resolved the answer to this simple question. If asked, most people would probably tell you that the dinosaurs were killed by a meteorite. But the widely held view, that an extra-terrestrial rocky behemoth slammed into the Earth in Mexico and immediately wiped out almost all life, is vastly oversimplified. In reality it was a lot more complicated than that.
Groundbreaking new research has revised our understanding of one of the oldest symbiotic partnerships on Earth; scientists recently discover that lichens comprise more than just two mutually beneficial organisms. Almost 150 years ago, lichens became the most prominent example of symbiosis, a mutualism between an ascomycete fungus and a photosynthesising symbiont. The new study, published in Science last month, suggests a third partner has been lurking in the mix.
When I tell people that I’m researching past environmental change, they probably think that I spend my time in the dusty corners of a lab, studying fossils or ancient mud. While this is partly true, what might not be immediately obvious is that understanding how modern environmental systems work is an essential first step to any research on past environments. The concept of studying modern environments in order to understand the past remains important to the present day, and has turned out to be a key part of my PhD.
When the organising committee for the joint DTP conference were approached to write a blog on our experience, I wasn’t really sure where to start. What do I want to say? Do people even care? So, I did what any good PhD student would do, and turned to Google. The first thing that came up was a Guardian article on “How to organise an academic conference – 10 tips”. Great! Why didn’t I do this earlier?
For those who don’t know, INTIMATE stands for INTegrating Ice core, MArine and TErrestrial records, just to get that one out of the way. In Quaternary Science, the INTIMATE network aims to better understand the mechanisms and impact of climate change by bringing together scientists to reconstruct and model past climates by integrating palaeological records. From 5th – 11th June this year, I took part in the INTIMATE Example Research Training School in Stara Kiszewa, Poland, alongside 20 other early career scientists.
Talking to strangers isn’t my strong point – public speaking usually coincides with a quite a bit of stress and nervous sweating. So when the opportunity to volunteer and be trained in public engagement with the British Ecological Society (BES) came up, I hoped it would chuck me right in the deep end, and I’d get over it. What really happened is that I spent a thoroughly enjoyable weekend in a lovely sunny field, asking festival-goers whether they’d like to learn about animal poo. If that doesn’t help you get over a fear of public speaking, nothing will.
Is climate change fueling war? Over the last decade, many prominent figures have raised concerns that climate change could be linked to conflicts and unrest. However, a direct link between climate change and war is not so easy to prove, and out of the spotlight, the academic debate ranges on.
Can you name 10 famous biologists? Even if you are a scientist, you will probably struggle to answer this question. If not, then probably just Darwin, and a handful of other names will come to mind. This is hardly surprising, Charles Darwin’s face is everywhere, especially in the UK, where his characteristic beard can be… Read More ›
So much for slowing down as you age. Earth’s plates are moving faster now than at any point in the last 2 billion years, according to the latest plate movement study.
When I joined the London DTP, one of the big draws was that I could create my own PhD topic, and that the partnership worked with organisations like the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), who are highly renowned for their work in my area of interest – marine conservation. What I didn’t realise at first,… Read More ›
April 2015 saw the 4th, and largest release of captive bred Regent Honeyeaters into Chiltern Mt-Pilot National Park, VIC, Australia, and the start of the first field season of my PhD. The captive breeding and release of these birds is a huge collaborative project between BirdLife Australia, Taronga Zoo and The Victorian Government Department of Land, Water and Planning (DELWP).
The role of satellite remote sensing in ecosystem risk assessment, particularly in how it is used as part of the Red List of Ecosystems (RLE), was discussed by Dr Emily Nicholson, from Deakin University in Australia, at the ZSL Symposium on Remote Sensing for Biodiversity. Originally posted by KCL EOES Hub.
Picture your idyllic afternoon. Mine would be walking next to a crystal clear stream overflowing with life; green plants, splashing salmon, rustling water vole – all of which should be characteristics of England’s 224 chalk streams. Sadly, this image was shattered when I read the headline of the WWF’s 2014 report on The State of England’s Chalk Streams.
Recently, while on fieldwork in Norfolk, I came across several shells of the Slipper limpet (Crepidula fornicata), on the beach. Hardly worthy of comment, you might think, but the Slipper Limpet shouldn’t be here. Looking at its known distribution range, it was reported in Norfolk for the first time just a few years ago. Yet, there it was, now during my marine field trip, and in considerable numbers. First introduced into the UK with imported oysters towards the end of the 19th century, the slipper limpet has now spread to 20 countries.
Kelly Gunnell is a King’s Water researcher in the Department of Geography exploring cities, ecosystem services and future climate change. She was awarded a NERC funded PhD studentship via the London NERC DTP in 2014.
I’m lucky that my studentship includes a CASE collaboration with the Broads Authority, who are responsible for the conservation, navigation and planning permission of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads National Park. There’s a misconception that turning up at a lake with a boat and taking away some samples is an easy process – who’s going to notice some missing mud from the bottom of a murky lake? In reality, obtaining the correct permissions is essential, especially when it comes to later publishing the data.
When I was 17 my physics teacher told me that all biology was chemistry, all chemistry was physics and all physics was maths. “And maths?” I asked. “Ask the philosophers” was her reply. This is an excellent example of the reductionism inherent in much of scientific enquiry. Broadly speaking, reductionism supposes that there are causal mechanisms underlying all phenomena, with further causes underlying these mechanisms, which can be detected if we only know where and how to search for them.
You have thousands of samples to sort, a growing stack of journal articles to read, data to analyse and a thesis to write. Engaging the public in your research is not a top priority. But it should be. Taking the time to explain your research to a wider audience, engage the public in science and inspire the next generation of researchers is an important part of your PhD (and your scientific career!). Here’s why:
Volcanologically speaking, 2015 was an exciting year for new eruptions, and marked several significant anniversaries of volcanic disasters. Most commemorated perhaps was the bicentennial of the largest eruption in recorded history, at Tambora, Indonesia, but it was also the 35th anniversary of the Mt St Helens eruption that killed 57, and the 30th anniversary of the Nevado Del Ruiz disaster that killed 23 000 people and wiped the Colombian town of Armero off the map.
Many aspects of our lives are directly linked to the how rocks respond to the stresses and forces within the Earth. These range from catastrophic natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanoes, to our on-going reliance on hydrocarbons like oil, for energy generation as well as the production of many common items such as plastics and tyres.
In the not too distant past, many seemingly exotic animals, from brown bears to beavers, and pelicans to wolves, have called the British Isles home. Further back still, lions and hyenas once stalked the plains of Norfolk and hippos wallowed in the Thames. But what makes a ‘native?’
Looking out over the River Thames, its murkiness can give the impression of a polluted and lifeless river. This couldn’t be further from the truth however, as the river provides a broad range of habitats for a large number of species that many people would not expect to find in London. In fact, the Thames not only represents one of the cleanest urban river catchments in Europe, it is also the result of one of the most successful large-scale river restorations in history
Recent findings from NASA have shown that the Antarctic ice sheet is gaining more mass than it is losing each year. While this might sound like cause for celebration, this fact alone changes precious little; masses of ice worldwide are still responding negatively to a changing climate.
A solution exists that can change the fate of the Amazon Rainforest. A solution that would alleviate poverty, increase food security, restore biodiversity and reduce demand for deforestation. It seems counterintuitive, but these benefits can all be achieved by establishing agricultural systems that combine forestry with cattle, known as silvopasture
Of all the varied landscapes of the North American continent, none boasts more extremes than California’s Death Valley. Named for its harsh environment and capacity for doing away with poorly-prepared travellers, it boasts the continent’s lowest point (at 86m below sea level), the world’s highest reliably recorded air temperature (56.7 °C, at the aptly-named Furnace Creek), and sees only 60 to 70mm of rain per year on average. Death Valley is the perfect place to look at biological adaptations to desert environments
With the advent of antibiotics, vaccines and sanitation, it looked as if we had conquered infectious disease. Some tropical diseases, such as malaria, remained in certain places, but in the industrialised world, we were entering what promised to be a healthy new era. However, as the decades have passed, old diseases have resurfaced, existing ones… Read More ›
If you had only a few seconds to prepare for an earthquake, what would you do? Following Japan, Mexico and India, the US Geological Survey has recently announced its plan to implement an $80million earthquake early warning system for California. The system is designed to detect earthquake signals seconds or even minutes before the earthquake… Read More ›
I was taken aback last summer whilst in New Zealand, when returning to visit the Franz Josef Glacier, 14 years after I had last seen it. Only this time, I didn’t see it. The Franz Josef Glacier has both retreated and grown since 2001, but its most recent retreat of 800 meters, between 2011 and… Read More ›
As a child I had always been fascinated by the BBC’s “The Natural World”. One of my particular favourites was an episode about the Grand Canyon, and I had been dying to visit California ever since. So I was chuffed when California was announced as the destination for the London NERC DTP field trip in… Read More ›
As you may or may not know, the main change to the London NERC DTP California field course this year is that it is has been predominantly student-led. Since October 2015, student representatives and staff have taken part in weekly Skype meetings to decipher the complex logistics of running the California field class, and I… Read More ›
Ever since California was confirmed as the destination for this year’s London NERC DTP field training course, I’ve been excitedly planning my teaching session. As a specialist in ice age mammals, I pushed the organising committee again and again to include the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles in our itinerary. Here, the fossilised… Read More ›
Our second cohort have submitted their project proposals, and it’s finally time to take a break from the computer and get out into the field for the #DTPCalifornia Field Training Course 2016! The 10-day field course aims to give the first-year PhD students a broad introduction to field sciences, including planning, preparation and teaching, as… Read More ›
Is warfare encoded in our genes, or did it appear as a result of the pressures of civilisation? Could a willingness to fight neighbouring groups have provided our ancestors with an evolutionary advantage? With conflicts raging across the globe, these questions have implications for understanding our past, and perhaps our future as well. The Enlightenment… Read More ›
Sit quietly at the edge of a pond on a warm summer’s day and you’ll be rewarded with an abundant display of wildlife. You’ll see dragonflies hawking in search of prey over a mosaic of brightly coloured water plants, which are in turn visited by a host of bees and other pollinators. Where sunlight penetrates… Read More ›
The Silent Killer: PCB pollutants threaten dolphin and killer whale populations in the UK and Europe
In 1962 Rachel Carson wrote the iconic book, Silent Spring, alerting us to the horrific effects of man-made chemicals on the natural world. She predicted a planet where unexplained illness and death were the norm and species disappeared overnight. The world fell silent as birds vanished from our trees, poisoned as intensive agriculture turned to… Read More ›
Why should we study glaciers that no longer exist? And why should we examine the sediments they leave behind? We currently cannot predict the future behaviour of glaciers and icefields with much certainty because our records of glacier change are limited. But changes to the World’s ice sheets will have a huge impact on our… Read More ›
In early 2009, the city of L’Aquila in Italy was struck by a seismic swarm; a devastating series of many small earthquakes. The swarm culminated with a mainshock on the 6th April 2009, measuring 6.3 on Richter scale and killing 309 people. Although it sounds dramatic, this earthquake is apparently quite run-of-the-mill in the Italian… Read More ›
Nanoparticles. Depending on whom you listen to, these miniscule particles are either big news, or big trouble. They’re becoming common in a variety of products, and so have the potential to end up in the environment in huge quantities. But, is that a bad thing? Should it be stopped? What are the cold, hard, teeny… Read More ›
If you visit Trafalgar Square today, you will undoubtedly be surrounded by tourists, grinning down at unnatural angles at their smartphones as they try to get a decent selfie with Nelson. However, if smartphones and Nelson’s column had existed in London 120,000 years ago, then they’d probably want to look up from their phones and… Read More ›
If you live in England, tsunamis are probably not a major worry. When people think of tsunamis, they think of distant, tropical locations in seismically active regions such as Japan and South East Asia. Few would think of England as being at risk from tsunamis, but some scientists believe a Cornish tsunami could be just… Read More ›
I was recently dismayed to see a van delivering an artificial, or ‘lazy’, lawn to a residential property near my home. The idea that living lawns are being replaced with sterile carpets of plastic grass troubled me and, while I had hoped this was a relatively uncommon occurrence, further investigation revealed the popularity of lazy… Read More ›
Spot the archipelago surrounded by three category 4 hurricanes last August. Right in the middle you can find the not-so-idyllic-after-all, Hawaiian Islands. I was stuck on the Big Island at the time, and instead of discovering tropical wonders, I found myself discussing with my neighbours whether or not to stock up on groceries – just… Read More ›
Have a look around in nature and it doesn’t take long to find things that look, quite frankly, ridiculous. Jumping spiders have a strange, staccato dance that looks suspiciously good when put to the tune of YMCA; stalk-eyed flies, as the name suggests, carry their eyes on the ends of enormous stalks by blowing up… Read More ›
This year we set the second cohort of the London NERC DTP a new task – we asked them to write for the public, on a topic of their choice. I know from experience that this can be an extremely daunting prospect for many PhD students – after years of training in scientific writing and… Read More ›
Collaborative awards in science and engineering, also known as CASE studentships, allow non-academic organisations to partner with PhD research. The scheme aims to provide PhD students with equipment and expertise from outside the University environment, and to allow stakeholders to influence research at the earliest stages, to ensure that studies provide relevant data and answer meaningful questions. Implemented… Read More ›
UCL Geography in Pan-African consortium to achieve sustainable groundwater resources UCL Geography and London NERC DTP PhD student, David Seddon, is in Tanzania working with colleagues from the Tanzanian Ministry of Water and Sokoine University of Agriculture. They are establishing automated, high-frequency monitoring facilities to examine how the heavy rains associated with the El Niño… Read More ›
When most people think of ‘natural spaces’ they envision the wide-open countryside, elephants roaming around Africa, or maybe somewhere deep in the heart of the Amazon. But what about the nature right under our noses? Read more…
I want to take a look at one particular animal that’s been receiving a great deal of media attention of late – the feral cat. According to the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, there are somewhere in the region of 20 million feral cats in Australia… and they kill about 75 million native Australian animals every night.
The aliens have landed. They’ve taken up residence in our waterways, our cities, our farmland and forests. Their negative impacts to both the environment and the economy are enormous, and they aren’t going home any time soon. So what are ‘alien species’? In short, they are animals, plants or other organisms that we have introduced to areas outside of their natural range. They are considered to be ‘invasive’ when they become established, disperse and have negative impacts on people and / or wildlife.