Friday, 19 December 2008

Natural Capital Initiative: Linking Environment and Policy

The BES is a major partner and sponsor in a new project, the 'Natural Capital Initiative', which has launched its website today.

The BES, the Institute of Biology, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Science Council are co-operating as a partnership (the NCI) to deliver a three-day symposium in April 2009, aiming to bring together ecologists, scientists from other disciplines, policy-makers and others (including architects, land managers, planners, representatives from business and from across Government departments) to discuss gaps in research and implementation of the ecosystem approach - and how to solve them.

The three-day event, from 29 April - 1 May 2009, consists of a high-profile first day with keynote speeches and discussion, followed by two days of case -studies. Groups will get together to discuss the ecosystem approach in the context of rural land-use, urban planning and the marine environment.

Confirmed speakers for day one include: the Government Chief Scientist, Sir John Beddington; Professor Gretchen Daily, Stanford University; Lord May of Oxford, Committee on Climate Change; Baroness Young, Care Quality Commission and Graham Wynne, CEO RSPB. We will also be joined by figures to discuss the importance of an ecosystem approach to business: Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Director of Corporate and Legal Affairs at Tesco and Richard Brown, CEO Eurostar, are amongst our high-profile speakers.

You can find more information about the symposium at Registration will open in January.

Lord Smith Outlines Vision for Environment Agency

At a recent meeting in the House of Commons, Chairman of the Environment Agency (EA) Lord Chris Smith, outlined plans to improve the EA's delivery functions throughout his tenancy as Chair.

Lord Smith described the EA as an "unusual body" and a "diverse beast," insofar as it is "part deliverer, part regulator and part adviser."

The EA is said to be fairly bureaucratic at the moment, and Lord Smith is optimistic bureaucracy can be reduced, with more resources allocated to delivering EA objectives.

There has reportedly been some opposition from EA Officers towards moves to incorporate micro-hydro-electric generators in river systems. As Lord Smith pointed out, the need to combat climate change through reducing emissions must be balanced with other concerns. Some researchers believe that sensitive use of small hydro-electric installations would have a limited impact on the ecology of the river system, and this initiative will doubtlessly be explored further.

Lord Smith mentioned the need to improve communications with local communities. Local knowledge holds immense value in terms of setting planning and conservation objectives, and must be considered critically alongside scientific recommendations.

Touching on the subject of the third runway evidenced Lord Smith's genuine commitment to social, ecological and environmental concerns. Aside from the issue of increased greenhouse gas emissions, Nitrogen pollution from emissions already presents a very real and serious health hazard to residents proximal to Heathrow. A third runway would massively increase the output of harmful noxious gases such as Nitrogen dioxide and breach European Environmental safe emissions limits.

In terms of Climate Change, the EA's primary responsibility is to help those unable to cope with the consequences. Lord Smith backed the use of Carbon & Capture and Storage technology in new coal-fired power stations, although he recognised the existing shortcomings in available technology.

Speaking of successes, Lord Smith announced success in reducing input of pollutants to the environment, highlighting a 59% and 48% reduction of Mercury and Cadmium respectively, to our freshwater systems over the last year.

In terms of regulating polluters, Lord Smith expressed the need to pursue the "bad guys", i.e. the worst polluters, with more frequent visits from EA officers, whilst reducing inspections to companies and individuals showing marked improvements.

When asked on how to bridge the gap between EA 'field agents' and policy-makers, Lord Smith said that The Environment Agency will be a statutory consultee of the Planning Act. This will hopefully streamline communication

The talk was broad in scope, President-elect Barack Obama even got a look-in (i.e. alluding to Obama's policy plans to Ministers can be an effective persuasive tool!). Overall the outlook for the EA looks set to be very positive whilst Lord Chris Smith remains as Chair.

Check out the EA's website here for further news and updates.

Seasons Greetings from the BES Science Policy Team to readers of the Blog!

The River Evenlode, Oxfordshire: Image courtesy of the author, Charlie Butt

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Tristan Albatross Faces Imminent Extinction

Tristan Albatross chicks are raised exclusively on Gough Island, a UK Overseas Territory. Sadly they are being predated by 'killer mice' at such an unprecedented rate the species faces imminent extinction unless urgent action is taken.

Government funding to tackle the introduced mouse epidemic on Gough Island is severely lacking, despite strong recommendations from two Select Committees calling for the problem to be urgently tackled: "biodiversity found in the UK Overseas Territories is equally valuable and at a greater risk of loss [than the UK]." Simply eradicating mice from the island would resolve the problem: albatross chicks face the horrific death of being eaten alive by mice whilst still on the nest.

RSPB scientist Richard Cuthbert has researched the mice problem on Gough Island since 2000. Speaking about the latest results he said:

“We’ve known for a long time that the mice were killing albatross chicks in huge numbers. However, we now know that the albatrosses have suffered their worst year on record.

"The mice do not affect the adult albatrosses, but we know from our work that these are being killed by long line fishing vessels at sea. So, unsustainable numbers of this bird are being killed on land and at sea. Without conservation efforts, the Tristan albatross is doomed."

The Gough bunting - endemic to the island - faces the same threat and is equally at risk. A recent survey showed that of 1764 incubated Albatross eggs on the island, only 246 chicks survived to fledgling, an astonishingly low 14%.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on Halting Biodiversity Loss, published a statement recently backing calls by the RSPB saying:

"One of the most important contributions that the Government could make to halting biodiversity loss would be to provide more support for the UK Overseas Territories, where it is the eleventh hour for many species. Although England has a number of internationally important species and habitats, the biodiversity found in the UK Overseas Territories is equally valuable and at a greater risk of loss. The Government must act now to protect these areas."

This view was backed up by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee for the UK Overseas Territories who stated in June: "The environmental funding currently being provided by the UK to the Overseas Territories appears grossly inadequate and we recommend that it should be increased."

The British Ecological Society is a member of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum and fully supports the position of the Select Committees in calling for urgent funds to be allocated for efforts to eradicate mice from Gough Island.

Oil Production Will "Plateau" in Eleven Years

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Faith Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, revealed oil production will plateau by 2020, peaking within 20 years.

It is anticipated that the extraction of tar sands will have to increase in order to fill the deficit left by faltering oil supplies. Tar sand extraction is known to be immensely environmentally damaging, and although an increase in tar sand production would contribute to global energy needs by 2% within this time frame, although the nearly 2 million barrels of oil produced would inevitably inhibit greenhouse gas emissions targets.

This revelation comes weeks after the Government released their Building a Low Carbon Economy report, setting out plans to 'de-carbonise' the economy. If commitments are met, and a rapid frameshift in the public mindset ensues, it might be possible to wean ourselves off of oil as well as avoid a climate change 'tipping point'. Such a 'tipping point' would result in climatic positive feedback, whereby increased temperatures result in further temperature rises causing a breakdown in natural systems that we depend on, with a chaotic outcome for life on earth.

The media and entertainment services have a responsibility to change attitudes and encourage greener lifestyles. Road transport makes up most of the UK's transport emissions, making for a key target in transport emissions reductions. The immensely popular BBC TV series 'Top Gear' is thought to have played a part in dampening enthusiasm for 'green' cars. However, encouragingly they recently praised Honda's new hydrogen-fuelled FCX Clarity, which performs like an ordinary car and emits only water. Although hydrogen fuel celled-cars are still in their infancy in terms of mass production and feasibility, broad media support for alternative fuels such as hybrid technology and electric vehicles can only help meet emissions targets and help combat climate change.

As the recent global financial meltdown has illustrated, individual economies are now so tightly interconnected that, much like in natural systems, problems and perturbations in one part of the system create shockwaves through the wider system, much like the entire global financial system. The concept of safe, independent economies is clearly no longer relevant and we must now take a systems-based approach to solving complex problems. Britain has taken the lead in moving towards a low-carbon economy, but it is essential the rest of the world gets on board too. This will certainly require developed countries to provide financial assistance as well as technological expertise to developing countries.

The world depends on energy, but cannot continue on the current path of unsustainable growth and pollution. Climate change is not an insurmountable problem but the clock is ticking and so the moves towards sustainable development and clean technology must accelerate.

Check developments of the 14th Climate Change Conference of the Parties here:

Read the Government's Building a Low Carbon Economy Report here:

Friday, 12 December 2008

Young Scientist Parliamentary Poster Competition

A major scientific competition and exhibition is to be held in Parliament. 'SET for BRITAIN' will be held in the House of Commons on Monday 9 March 2009 between noon and 9 pm. It will form a part of National Science and Engineering Week 2009.

The day will be divided into three sessions. Applications are invited from early-stage and early-career research scientists, engineers and technologists who wish to exhibit posters in one of the following three areas:

  • Biological and Biomedical Science
  • Physical Sciences (Chemistry and Physics)
  • Engineering
Early-stage researchers include university research students, postgraduates, research assistants, postdocs, research fellows, newly-appointed lecturers, part-time and "mature" students, "returners", those people embarking on a second career, etc and their equivalents in national, public sector and industrial laboratories, etc, and appropriate final year undergraduate and MSc students, all of whom are engaged in scientific, engineering, technological or medical research and are achieving results.

This event is supported by, amongst others, the Institute of Biology and Royal Society of Chemistry.

Prizes will be awarded for the best scientific posters presented in each discipline, including the Wharton Medal which will be awarded in memory of the late Dr Eric Wharton.

The closing date for entries is Friday 16 January 2009. There will be an initial selection by the judges and you will be informed by Monday 16 February whether or not your application to take part in the exhibition has been successful.

Full details of the competition and exhibition including the application form can be found on the SET FOR BRITAIN website at:

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Reformation of EU Emissions Trading System Required To Reduce Green House Gases

The House of Lords EU Committee have produced a report calling for an overhaul of the Emissions Trading System (ETS), in order to meet ambitious greenhouse gas (GHG)reduction targets, since it is the main tool of the EU to reduce carbon emissions.

Although the EU ETS underpins UK and EU climate change policy, its effectiveness in delivering its aim (to reduce GHGs) remains unproven. The Committee strongly urges that the System be reformed, despite reservations from various member states. For example Poland have expressed opposition to auctioning of carbon permits, largely due to their heavy dependence on coal burning for power generation.

However the Committee have called for all allowances to be auctioned by 2013, and if exceptions are made to member states it will be on the condition that clean coal technologies are developed and trialed during the transition phase.

Concern has also been expressed over 'carbon leakage' - that is industries producing excessive emissions relocate to countries with less stringent regulations - although these industries are in the minority. The Committee recommended these industries be identified by 2009, but no decision will be made to allocate them 'free emission permits' - that is the freedom to continue polluting - until after the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009.

The Committee identified two risk areas regarding the ETS:

  • Industries will not comply with regulations
  • The ETS will not be joined up to global trading schemes and will therefore not fulfill their potential
Speaking about the report Lord Sewel, Chairman of the House of Lords EU Sub-Committee on Environment and Agriculture, said:

"Linking the EU ETS to other emissions trading schemes will be essential in order to maximise its environmental performance and minimise its economic costs. Worryingly, the prospects for such links appear to be poor."

"Both the UK and the EU's climate change policy is riding on the success of the ETS, which as yet is far from guaranteed. A timid deal at the summit of EU leaders could produce the worst of all worlds."

The report will be available online shortly after publication at:

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Toxic Bioaccumation Ends Faroese Whale Consumption

Medical advisers on the Faroes Islands have announced that pilot whales should no longer be consumed because dangerous levels of toxins have been found amongst the islanders.

Traditionally thousands of pilot whales are killed each year for consumption by the Faroese, despite opposition from anti-whaling groups.

Toxins found in high levels in the islanders include DDT derivatives, PCBs and mercury. Toxic levels of mercury are known to cause damage to fetal neural development and immunity in children, increased blood pressure and increased risk of parkinson's disease; all of these symptoms have been found in the islanders.

The Faroese are not known to have contributed to the pollution in whales; the source of the toxins is widespread. However they have acknowledged the effect it is having on them and responded accordingly.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Nominations Open for 2009 BA Annual Award Lectures

Nominations are now open for the 2009 BA Annual Award Lectures. The opportunity to deliver a lecture is awarded to an impressive communicator of science, engineering or technology who show outstanding skills in communicating to a non-specialist audience.

The Award Lectures are delivered each year at the BA Festival of Science, next year taking place in Guildford from 5 - 9 September. The lectures aim to promote open and informed discussion on issues involving science and actively encourage young scientists to explore the social aspects of their research, providing them with a reward and recognition for doing so.

Nominees should be professional scientists and engineers and must be aged 40 or under on 10 September 2009. They must be able to attend the 2009 Science Festival.

Further details on the Award Lectures and how to nominate an outstanding communicator of science are available from the BA website.

£250m to Train Scientists and Engineers of the Future

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has announced that £250m will be invested to create 44 training centres to train more than 2,000 PhD students in science and engineering. The aim is to create a 'new wave' of scientists and engineers who can tackle the most pressing problems faced by the UK, and globally.

The training centres will be multidisciplinary and 17 will be industrial; working closely with business. The doctoral centres include the STREAM (Skills, Technology. Research and Management) industrial centre for the UK Water Sector at Cranfield University and centres focusing on the development of wind energy, sustainable urban environments and the development of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology.

See full list of Postgraduate Training Centres

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Wales' Largest Wind Farm Approved

The Welsh Government yesterday granted assent for the development of Wales' largest wind farm - and the second largest in the world - off the North coast of the country. When complete, in 2014, and fully operational, the wind turbines will supply electricity for 700,000 homes.

The wind farm, at Gwent y Môr, will be built by NPower Renewables and will generate 750MW of 'clean' energy. The approval brings Wales a step closer to meeting its ambitious target, announced by Jane Davidson, Environment Minister, in February: to supply all of Wales' electricity from green, 'clean' sources by 2025. Electricity generation accounts for 30% of Wales' carbon emissions.

The UK is the world's leader in generating power from offshore wind farms, with a total offshore built capacity of 590MW at present. The proposed 'London Array' in the outer Thames Estuary, which would generate 1GW of power.

The announcement from Wales follows Tuesday's 'plugging in' of the largest wind farm in Europe into the Portuguese National Grid. The development, in the Upper Minho region of Portugal will provide 1% of the country's total energy and will supply electricity for over 1 million residents.

See original article in the Guardian, 4 December 2008: Go-ahead for wind farm puts Wales on track to meet clean energy targets

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Marine Bill Receives Royal Assent

At 11.20am today, the House of Lords witnessed the State Opening of Parliament marking the beginning of the parliamentary session.

Here, the Queen's Speech was delivered, outlining the Government's plans for the coming Parliamentary year.

Given the current global economic climate, it was no surprise that the Government's main priority is to ensure the stability of the economy during the global economic downturn. Many of the commitments and proposed legislation mentioned in the Queen's speech, understandably centred around helping people and families through hard economic times.

The main highlight for the British Ecological Society was the Marine Bill receiving Royal Assent. The science policy team are particularly pleased that many of the recommendations made to Government to strengthen the bill were taken into consideration. The Queen said:

"To protect the environment for future generations - a bill will be brought forward to manage marine resources and protect access to the coastline."

The speech also described the Government's intention to work closer with the devolved administrations - a requirement for the Marine Bill to be effective.

The science policy team would be delighted to receive comments from readers of the blog

Frog Decline Linked to Agri-Chemicals

The global decline in frog populations has been attributed to an increase in infectious diseases. However findings in Nature reveal a link between parasitic infection and local interaction between phosphate fertilisers and herbicides.

The study focused on leopard frogs from wetlands in Minnesota, USA, and these frogs were examined for trematode larvae - a type of parasitic flatworm. Trematodes are known to cause kidney damage and occasionally deformities in amphibians. The researchers also looked for indicative signs of water pollution, by measuring the level of melanomacrophage liver cells, which are involved in amphibian immune response.

Of the many possible factors contributing to these ailments in the frogs, the strongest predictor of larval infection was the herbicide atrazine combined with high phosphate levels. High levels of the atrazine herbicide were correlated with low levels of melanomacrophage cells, indicating the herbicide suppressed the frogs' immune response, increasing susceptibility to the trematodes.

A probable cause of the interaction was revealed, when the frogs were placed in tanks exposed to supposed environmental levels of these chemical in the U.S. Atrazine reduced phytoplankton growth, creating clearer water and higher levels of nutrients. This stimulated algal growth, which in turn encouraged gastropods. Gastropods play host to trematodes, acting as a vector to the amphibians.
Since wetland birds are the primary host of trematode eggs, as the authors suggest, these must be present along with the elevated phosphate levels and herbicide for the interactive effect to take place.

The findings highlight problems in the European and American systems for registering chemicals. Although the chemicals have no direct effect on mortality independently, the combined effect results in this pollution-disease pathway and would not be identified under existing pollutant control tests.

Many European countries banned its use even before EU legislation withdrew support for its use in 2004, because of concerns over concentrations in groundwater. Atrazine is used widely across the world for corn and sorghum production. There is still some limited support for its use in European countries, although the UK, Ireland, Spain and Portugal no longer have any support for it.

Amphibians are becoming increasingly threatened across the globe, with many species expected to become extinct by 2050.
Amphibian fungal infections, particularly Chytridiomycosis are on the rise across the globe, possibly exacerbated by climate change. Chytridiomycosis is thought to have originated in South Africa, although nobody is entirely certain where it began.

Adapted from the Science Environment Policy bulletin, Source:
Rohr, J.R., Schotthoefer, A.M., Raffel, T.R., et al. (2008). Agrochemicals increase trematode infections in a declining amphibian species. Nature. 455: 1235-1240.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Building a Low Carbon Economy - Government Report Released

Defra yesterday launched their report 'Building a Low Carbon Economy', which sets out plans to move away from our fossil-fuel based society.

Broadly, the Climate Change Bill will put into statute the UK’s targets to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 60% by 2050 and 26% by 2020, against average 1990 emissions.

If a global deal isn't reached in Copenhagen next year, then the target will be as follows:

  • 2008-2012: 3018 million tonnes
  • 2013-2017: 2,819 million tonnes
  • 2018-2022: 2,570 million tonnes

If the international deal is reached in 2009, then the intended budget for greenhouse gas emission limits will be:

  • 208-2012: 3018 million tonnes
  • 2013-2017: 2,679 million tonnes
  • 2018-2022: 2,245 million tonnes

The government has set a target that 20% of all energy should come from renewable resources by 2020. A Renewable Energy Strategy is due to be published in Spring 2009 that will set clear guidelines on how this target will be achieved. The government also has questionable plans to invest more in nuclear energy in the run up to 2020.

The report includes plans to set clear reductions in carbon emissions from road transport. The King review found that average carbon emissions from cars could feasibly be cut to 100g/km by 2020. The Government is keen to push European legislation to follow suit on this front. This will inevitably have to mean either a reduction in demand from the most polluting vehicles, for example the Porsche Cayenne (358g C/km) and the Range Rover HSE Sport (374g C/km), or prohibitive taxation, failing a change in the wealthy motorists' mindset.

Ambitious plans have been laid down for the building industry. By 2016, all new housing must be carbon neutral, whilst public buildings must meet this target by 2018, and other non-domestic buildings by 2019.

To tackle issues of waste, the 'tax escalator' that has already begun will hopefully reduce emissions from landfill sources and increase recycling.

The government has set progressive targets to reduce the use of inefficient lightbulbs by 2011 in retail and manufacturing, aiming to phase out wasteful practices.

£20 million is being invested by the Department for Transport and the Technology Strategy
Board for a collaborative research programme, aimed at commercialising vehicle technologies that will reduce carbon emissions over the next five to seven years.

Enhancing innovation and building the necessary skills base is at the heart of the Government's plans to build a low carbon economy in the coming years.

An independent expert committee on climate change has been created, chaired by Lord Turner, which will advise the Government on how to meet its emulous targets.

Read the full document, including specific recommendations in response to the Commission on Environmental Markets and Economic Performance (CEMEP) enquiry, at:

Monday, 1 December 2008

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poznań, Poland

Today marks the beginning of the 14th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations on Climate Change.

The meeting has the following aims;

  • Agree on a plan of action and programmes of work for the final year of negotiations after a year of comprehensive and extensive discussions on crucial issues relating to future commitments, actions and cooperation
  • Make significant progress on a number of on-going issues required to enhance further the implementation of the Convention and the Kyoto Protocol, including capacity-building for developing countries, reducing emissions from deforestation (REDD), technology transfer and adaptation.
  • Advance understanding and commonality of views on "shared vision" for a new climate change regime
  • Strengthen commitment to the process and the agreed timeline
EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas stated recently that: "Even if it is too early to expect major breakthroughs, the Poznan conference must shift gear from exploratory discussions to concrete negotiations."

Parties have less than a year to agree on strengthened action on mitigation, adaptation, finance and technology.

It is hoped that the climate talks will form the basis of global deal in Copenhagen at the end of 2009.

View the full schedule here.

Climate Change Committee Set Plans to De-Carbonise the Economy

The future of coal power is now in the hands of the climate change committee, as they are due to set out plans to 'de-carbonise' the economy. The committee plans to publish the findings of their report later today.

Environmentalists are keen that the committee sets stringent emission targets from 2020, ensuring that any new coal-fired power stations are fitted with carbon capture and storage technology.

It is expected the climate change committee will recommend interim targets up to 2022, considering the EU aims to reduce emissions by up to 30% by up to 2050.

The executive secretary of the UN climate secretariat, Yvo de Boer said that the international talks on a climate change treaty in Poznan, Poland, could set plans on how rich countries can help the developing world cope with the impact of climate change. It is hoped the treaty will come into effect by 2012.

De Boer said: "I think it is important that countries in Copenhagen reach a political agreement that is a response to what scientists tell us need to be done."

Currently rainforest lost is reaching unprecedented levels. The talks may offer new direction to how polluting countries can pay tropical countries to conserve their forests, as a means of reducing CO2 emissions, since forest clearance is a huge contributor to climate change.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Questions Over Future of Fast Food Fish

As popular white fish species such as cod, face fisheries collapse, pollock has increasingly been an essential alternative. For instance the kid's favourite, Fish Fingers, now increasingly consist of pollock rather than cod, as do McDonald's 'Filet-o-Fish.'

Perhaps the pollock's newly received endangered status has been brought about by increased corporate-consumer demand.

Recently the US National Marine Fisheries Service advised an 18 per cent reduction in next year's catch from the pollock's stronghold in the eastern Bering Sea. However given that advice about the North Atlantic Cod stocks were not heeded, many believe greater reductions are needed.

Greenpeace's oceans campaign director, John Hocevar has been vocal about the need to reduce pollock fishing in order to prevent total collapse, suspecting that "we are on the cusp of one of the largest fishery collapses in history."

Many scientists including Hocevar believe that the pollock's immense decline could be the reason that stellar sea lion's - a major predator of pollock - are faring so badly. Their numbers have tumbled by 80 per cent since the 1970s.

Once again, the imperative to diversity fish tastes at home and abroad has been highlighted, to allow imperilled fish stocks to recover.

Climate Change Bill Receives Royal Assent

After years of campaigning by a multitude of NGOs within Britain for a far-reaching Climate Change Bill, the Government has finally given in and last night the Climate Change Bill received Royal Assent.

The British Ecological Society (BES) responded to the initial Government consultation in 2007, calling for the government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 70% by 2050, and the BES is extremely pleased that the Government favourably considered our viewpoint.

In fact the Government went further and set binding targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 80% of 1990s levels by 2050. Suprisingly, Lord Turner, the chair of the Climate Change Committee, has pledged support of a third runway at Heathrow with obvious implications in terms of emissions. However, Lord Turner believes that building a third runway at Heathrow will not inhibit targets set out in the bill.

The government has set itself five year carbon budgets that it will be required to not only adhere to, but to provide annual reports on its progress towards meeting the budgets. The first of these budgets will run from 2008 to 2013, with follow-up budgets from 2013 to 2018, and 2018 to 2023.

Announcing the new legislation the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Miliband, said "Setting the 80 per cent target was the easy part: now the work really begins," he said.

"Government, communities, businesses and individuals need to work together to bring about change."

The ascension of the Climate Change Bill means Britain is now a world leader in tackling climate change. This will hopefully help bring about similar positive changes in other countries that, until now, have been hesitant about making as strong binding commitments as Britain has made.

BES members are invited to comment on this article

Thursday, 27 November 2008

BBC Launches New Environment Blog

Take a look at the new environment blog, 'Earth Watch', maintained by the BBC website's Environment Correspondent, Richard Black:

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Larger Fish Produce Hardier Offspring

Research published in the Royal Society's Biology Letters journal suggests that fisheries management must consider population demography.

Modeling the life history demographics of 25 different marine fish species, Canadian scientists have found that larger, older female fish produce tougher offspring than their younger counterparts.

In efforts to make fisheries more sustainable, conserving the elder female fish could help sustain populations. Currently the findings of the research are out of sync with real-life fisheries practice, where the largest fish are sought. Overfishing results from this practice because of the two-fold effect of removing the best breeders, and subsequently reducing the rate of recruitment in the local population.

It is suggested that by enforcing size regulations, altering the size of fishing gear and how it's used could protect the bigger older individuals. The practicality of implementing these measures on the ground are not explored explicitly however, and targeting large female fish within populations could be very difficult to implement.

Do blog readers believe that European fisheries practices are sustainable? Does the Common Fisheries Policy need re-evaluating?

Blog readers are invited to comment on this article

Building a Sustainable Future through "Creating a Climate for Change"

The Science Policy team yesterday attended the final day of the annual Environment Agency conference, which saw Jane Davidson, Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing at the Welsh Assembly Government, Ed Milliband, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, deliver keynote addresses.

Jane Davidson set our her vision for 'One Wales, One Planet', a new scheme which commits Wales to become a 'one planet nation'. The Government aims to reduce the ecological footprint of Wales to 1.88 global Ha per person, from 5.16Ha pp at present. This will involve an 80-90% reduction in the use of carbon-based energy, plus an associated reduction in carbon emissions, a reduction in waste and in travel. Wales is committed to a 3% year-on-year reduction in emissions from 2011.

Ed Milliband, delivering his first speech as Secretary of State at the new Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), emphasised the need to "up the pace", with respect to tackling climate change, calling on the public sector to play a greater role in energy generation. He stressed that carbon emissions from aviation can no longer be overlooked, with an amendment to the UK Climate Change Bill meaning that emissions from aviation will be taken account of in carbon targets. Mr Milliband also highlighted the opportunities for creating "green jobs" which a switch to renewable energy and development of 'green' technologies could bring: "greening the upturn" in the economy which would mark a climb out of recession.

Boris Johnson used his speech to announce a new 'priority parks' initiative, allowing the public to vote for 47 green spaces which they would like to receive investment. The top-10 parks will receive a £400,000 award for improvements. Mr Johnson stated that he had has his 'mind changed' over climate change, based on the 'huge body of scientific evidence'. It was his duty as Mayor, he said, to create a city which is tree-lined, enjoyable and above all, a 'nice' place to live. London could be the centre of a green revolution. The cornerstone of this is the Mayor's recently announced plan to introduce 6-10,000 bicycles to the streets under a cycle-hire scheme, and the introduction of cycle 'super-highways'.

A business forum saw corporate figures questioned by the Chair and audience over their sectors' plans for mitigating and adapting to climate change. One speaker, Mike Barry, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility at Marks and Spencers, highlighted the need for organisations such as M and S to pay heed to 'sound science' when making decisions regarding 'greening' their supply chains, and the importance of gathering multiple stakeholders together to discuss potential solutions based on this.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Bluefin Tuna Under Threat from Short-Sighted EU Policy

It seems as though the Government-Industrial complex has overcome sensibilities in a move by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), calling to maintain fishing levels of bluefin tuna Thunnus thynnus 50% above scientists' recommendations.

ICCAT members decided to permit a take of 22,000 tonnes per year (Total Allowable Catch), despite ICCAT scientists setting a quota of 15,000 tonnes (TAC). The members voted on the higher quota despite warnings by scientists that fisheries would collapse if their advice was not heeded. The ICCAT members' target does not even take into consideration the additional 30% of take that illegal fishing contributes.

Some European countries have independently expressed concern over bluefin stocks. Spain, which consume the most tuna of any European country, called for a suspension of the fishery, whilst Italy have opted for a total moratorium.

It is thought that conservation groups may now engage the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), in order to enforce trade control over the bluefin tuna trade.

Europeans, particularly the British, have a tendency to favour very few fish species over the relative diversity of fish available on the market. There are many decent alternatives to popular choices such as Atlantic cod and bigeye tuna (stocks of both are perilously depleted), its simply a matter of educating the public, and where possible your colleagues.

The Marine Conservation Society
has provided a comprehensive sustainable fish guide, and a pocket-sized version is available from their fish online website.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Policy Shift Could Significantly Reduce UK Emissions

A new report by the Campaign for Better Transport suggests that emissions from transport could be cut by up to 26% of 2006 levels by 2020.

The report highlights the following areas where most emissions could be reduced:

• Reductions in passenger travel emissions of 32%

• Freight emissions reduced by up to 19%

• Cars 25% more fuel efficient

• Car traffic reduced by 15%

• Domestic aviation emissions down 30%

The report suggests that cutting long-distance travel could lead to significant reductions in overall emissions, particularly from long-distance commuters and HGVs.

The government awaits the official findings from the Committee on Climate Change before making any final decisions.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Better Habitat Networks in Europe Will Benefit People and Wildlife

Conservationists and policy makers are conscious that many species ranges' may shift because of climate change, in fact many species have already begun to do so, (although this wasn't detected convincingly in the recent Countryside Survey Report for the UK).

Recent research published in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology investigated the extent to which the Natura 2000 network is capable of supporting European species in the face of climate change.

The investigators analysed how well connected forest, wetland and grassland ecosystems are across NW Europe now, and how they might become as a result of climate change. They also looked at the extent to which
habitat networks will be able to facilitate species' movement under a specific climate change model.

The findings suggest that protected areas currently suitable for many species, will no longer be able to support these species in the future. The available habitat for different species in the future will vary, for example available habitat for the black woodpecker Dryocopus martius, marsh warbler Acrocephalus palustris and meadow pipit Anthus pratensis is expected to be around 70%, whereas the agile frog Rana dalmatina and bittern Botaurus stellaris only 6-8%. Considerable range shifts were also predicted, for example the middle spotted woodpecker Dendrocopus medius is anticipated to become more abundant in Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark, as habitat becomes less suitable in France.

The authors emphasise the need to strengthen connectivity between ecosystem networks on a large spatial scale. Given the uncertainty surrounding the frequency of extreme weather events, how representative the study species are and the impact of curbing emissions on climate change, the precautionary principle should be applied.

Thus European policy should aim to broadly meet the needs of
as many species as possible by increasing connectivity, whilst considering ecosystem services such as water regulation and carbon fixation. For example increasing wetlands across Europe will offer ecosystem services in terms of winter flood and summer drought alleviation, whilst providing increased connectivity for wetland species such as the bittern.

The research highlights the need to consider wildlife conservation in the context of future climate and habitat change. Presently BRANCH (
Biodiversity Requires Adaptation in North Western Europe under a Changing Climate) are helping to fill the policy gaps, by pushing for the integration of planning with biodiversity needs.

The journal article is available for purchase from Wiley Interscience.

Read more about Natura 2000 here.

Source: Vos, C.C., Berry, P., Opdam, P. Baveco, H., Nijhof, B., O'Hanley, J., Bell, C., and Kuipers, H. (2008). Adapting landscapes to climate change: examples of climate-proof ecosystem networks and priority adaption zones. Journal of Applied Ecology. 45: 1722-1731.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

NERC Peer Review College Advertising

Applications are now welcome for the NERC peer review college. The closing date is 9 January 2009.

NERC is seeking college members with all types of environmental sciences expertise. Those selected will make an important contribution to determining the science that NERC funds and will have a pivotal role in maintaining its quality. Members of the peer review college find that they gain valuable insight into the grant assessment process, which can help them to formulate their own proposals. Other benefits of membership are the chance to examine a wide variety of proposals and the opportunity to network with colleagues at panel meetings.

For further information, please contact the Peer Review College at or see

BES Collaboration Praised in the House of Lords

The role of the BES in bringing together policy makers, ecologists and others to discuss topical issues in environmental policy has been highlighted in a response to a parliamentary question in the House of Lords. Lord Dykes (Spokesperson in the Lords - Europe), asked the Government to outline the progress made by the UK Biodiversity Advisory Group (UK BRAG) in investigating empirical ecosystems. In response, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, Minister of State for Sustainable Development, Climate Change Adaptation and Air Quality at Defra, referenced the joint UK BRAG - BES workshop, held at this year's BES annual meeting, which examined ecosystem services and the ecosystem approach:

" In September 2008, UK BRAG held a joint workshop with the British Ecological Society to look specifically at ecosystem services and the ecosystem approach. The workshop brought environmental researchers together with sociologists and geographers to look at valuing biodiversity in a more holistic and practical way. The proceedings of this workshop will shortly be available on the UK BRAG website."

The BES will also be making the proceedings available online and will announce this on the Blog.

The BES is also involved in further high profile events in 2009, exploring the ecosystem approach, with a three-day stakeholder symposium from 29 April - 1 May. The BES has joined a partnership of organisations; the IOB, CEH and the Science Council, to form the 'Natural Capital Initiative'. The Initiative's website and further information about the symposium will shortly be available: again, this will be highlighted on the Blog.

Read the full transcript of today's discussion in the Lords on 'They Work for You'

House Sparrows Continue Precipitous Decline

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Conservation Director of the RSPB Dr Mark Avery, described the troubling plight of the House Sparrow Passer domesticus.

According to a recent study in the journal Animal Conservation by scientists from the RSPB, Natural England and De Montford University, house sparrows have declined by up to 68% of their 1970 population.

Commenting on the BBC website, Dr Peach of the RSPB, said:

"The trend towards paving of front gardens and laying decking in the back, and the popularity of ornamental plants from other parts of the world, has made many gardens no-go areas for once common British birds."

It has been proposed that an absence of aphids and other insects during summer - crucial for feeding chicks - may have a strong role to play.

Moreover, these insects inhabit vegetation frequently associated with a healthy front garden; honeysuckle wild roses and hawthorn. The current fashion of paving over front gardens in cities, particularly in large cities like London, is no doubt linked to their demise and should be cause for a serious re-think amongst policy-makers.

When questioned, Leader of North Herts District Council, Councillor John Smith, was reluctant to concede that the loss of brownfield sites could be a potential contributory factor, believing it to be a local phenomenon.

Environment Minister Micheal Meacher was "very worried, [given that] we may have lost nearly 15 million birds in the last thirty years." In the case of starlings, the Rt. Hon Meacher cited, that the loss of first year juveniles was known to be a contributory factor to their decline, possibly linked to diminishing autumn food supplies because of heavy pesticide use in intensive agriculture. A body of research highlights intensive agriculture as the cause of declines in farmland birds, and perhaps the combination of uber-urbanisation of town gardens is creating a 'double whammy' for the house sparrows.

Dr Avery and colleagues hopes to follow-up this report up with more detailed research in the near future, pending sufficient funding.

Hear the report on Radio4 here:

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Hilary Benn Launches Countryside Survey: Initial Results

Yesterday saw the launch of the initial results of the 2007 Countryside Survey, with a series of presentations and workshops in London. Opening the event, Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, praised the dedication of the ecologists and others behind the work and commented on the 'fundamental' importance of the report to Government. He also used the occasion as an opportunity to launch a new fund of over £1 million to improve the recording of wildlife in England. This money will be available from 2009 and will be channelled through the biological recording centres.

The results released yesterday signal just the start of the reporting period of the Survey, with further reports to be released in 2009 (reports for Wales, Scotland and England; raw data from the 500 study sites examined in the survey; land cover map; detailed analysis of soils and freshwater). 2010 will see the publication of an integrated assessment, bringing all these parameters together and examining the ecological impacts of different pressures on ecosystem services.

Some headline results from the Survey, in addition to those highlighted in yesterday's Blog post, include:

- Species richness in all random plots examined by the survey has declined since 1978.
- There has been a decline too in the species richness of areas adjacent to linear features, such as hedges, streams and roads, which provide refuges for species which cannot survive in intensively managed land.
- Areas targeted by the survey for their particular botanical interest have seen a worrying decline in species over the same period.
- There has been a 6% decrease in the total length of managed hedgerows since 1998. There has been a corresponding increase in the length of lines of trees and relict hedges, indicating a lack of hedge management.
- The number of ponds in Great Britain increased by 11% between 1998 and 2007, but over 80% of ponds in England and Wales were found to be in poor condition. Questions should be asked about the quality of the habitats provided by the new ponds.

Visit the website of the Countryside Survey at

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Countryside Survey 2007: Results Available

The results of the 2007 Countryside Survey have been released this morning, with the report published electronically on the Survey website. The report will be launched formally later today with a series of presentations and discussions, begun with a keynote speech by the Secretary of State for the environment, Hilary Benn.

In commenting on the results of the survey to the Times, Dr Peter Carey, the report's lead author and a member of both the BES Council and Public and Policy Committee, said that; "The overriding message from the 2007 results is that previous intensive management of the countryside has relaxed over the past 30 years and particularly during the nine years since the last survey.

A shift by farmers to less intensive management of their land, through set-aside schemes and the conversion of arable fields to grassland, has led to an increase in the abundance of brambles, nettles and hawthorn. This is good news for some bird and mammal species but less beneficial to low-lying plants which are crowded out by these weeds.

From 1998- 2007, the number of species of arable plant found on agricultural land increased by 30%, indicating farmers' increased tolerance for weeds on their land. Conservationists are concerned that the recent decision by the EU to scrap the set-aside scheme could remove the incentive for farmers to encourage the growth of such species.

The BES Science Policy Team will attend the launch of the Survey results and will post further information about this on the Blog in due course.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Busy Bees Get Workshy When Times are Good

The stereotypical image of the hard-working bumblebee has been shattered by new research published in the journal Behavioural Ecology and Social Biology.

Scientists from Queen Mary University London have found that bumblebees Bombus terrestris will only work if they absolutely have to - an evolved strategy to conserve energy in times of plenty.

Bees are known to respond to cues describing how full their food reserves are; successful foragers will reduce the number of runs to and from a nectar source, and fewer bees will engage in foraging trips. Molet and Raine, the lead authors of this study, investigated whether bees will respond to a third cue, that of recruitment pheromones.

To investigate this idea, the team attached minute radio transmitters (Radio Frequency Identification or RFIDs) to the bees, to determine the frequency of visits to pollen sites within the study area. The researchers created a concoction of chemicals that closely resembled bumblebees' natural cue pheromone, and also used a single chemical cue, to examine recruitment response. The bouts were recorded in 30 minute intervals, and during each interval the researchers monitored how 'full' the honeypots were.

Although pheromones increased the number of foraging bouts and new recruits, the bees were far less likely to respond when food reserves were well stocked, effectively ignoring the invitation to forage for nectar.

Dr Raine described how the chemical cue given off by single foragers to collect more food was not always heeded:

"If there isn't stuff to collect, a lot of them are pretty much on standby. They will be sitting around doing very little, or apparently so."

In summary, the research shows that bees use a suite of complex cues, (recruitment pheromone, frequency of visits by other foraging bees, and food reserve fullness) to decide whether or not to bother going out and foraging for food. This is the first time bumblebees' response to pheromones has been shown to be tempered by another cue, in this case - colony nutrition status.

The research has potential implications for commercial crop pollination. A healthy, well fed colony may be more reluctant to go out looking or food - and thus pollinating - if the incentive isn't there. In the study the bumblebees were up to four times more responsive to the natural, 3-chemical pheromone mix than the single eucalyptus cue, therefore using the right chemical make-up when enticing bees is essential to motivating them.

However the bees reputation has not been completely tarnished. Dr Raine said that its not that the bumblebees are lazy, they have simply evolved an effective strategy to conserve energy when food is plentiful, and they are busy when there is work to be done.

Reference: Molet, M., Chittka, L., Stelzer, R.J., Streit, S., & Raine, N.E., 2008, Colony nutritional status modulates worker responses to foraging recruitment pheromone in the bumblebee Bombus terrestris, Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, 62:1919–1926, DOI 10.1007/s00265-008-0623-3

Ecology and Policy Blog Named in Top 50 Green Technology Blogs

The BES blog has recently been listed in the top fifty 'green technology' blogs, in a poll on a fellow green blog. The listing follows the continued rise in readership of the BES blog, having been recognised earlier in the year in The Times Top 10 eco-blogs.

The science policy team continues to try and inform readers of topical events and symposiums, upcoming enquiries, ecological issues of policy-relevance and topics of general interest to ecologists.

The science policy team would like to thank the readers for their continued support and recognising our efforts to promote the science of ecology.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Stern Responds to Climate Change Critics

The Stern report provided the economic case for global action to tackle climate change, but as with many evidence-issues linked to climate change, it wasn't without criticism.

The bar has been raised again for critics of climate change, with the release of a new report by Dietz and Stern (2008) calling for even more urgent action to mitigate the effects of climate change. The report makes the case for the ethical implications of inaction too, and calls for a far-reaching global political agreement on green house gas targets.

Like the previous report, the new report emphasises how the cost of mitigating climate change is far less than having to cope with the effects. The authors predict temperatures could rise by up to five degrees centigrade if a 'business as usual' approach is taken. This could have extreme consequences such as the loss of the thermohaline circulation and the total collapse of the ice sheets.

In addition to the ethical case concerning the negative impacts on the developing world as a result of inaction by the developed world, it is unethical leaving future generations to cover the costs imposed by the present generation, say the authors.

450-550ppm CO2e (a measure that encompasses the effect of all known GHGs) is the recommended upper limit of greenhouse gas emissions the world should allow, the review says.
550ppm is the point at which the world could warm to four degrees centigrade, well worth avoiding since agricultural output would be
severely affected, and major cities and international ports could become inundated.

So far, the USA under Republican leadership has been extremely reluctant to commit to binding
GHG agreements. If the president elect, Barack Obama commits to pledges made to tackle climate change in the run-up to the US election, it might be easier to get the rest of the world on board. This may well require a bi-lateral agreement between the US and China, the world's second biggest polluter, so that neither country is at an economic disadvantage as a result of measures taken to tackle climate change. Greater investment in low-emission technology can boost a nation's economy whilst tackling climate change at the same time. However scientists must continue to make the case for mitigating climate change, in order to affect the necessary change at the policy level.

See the European Commission website for further details

To access the
IPCC Fourth Assessment report - Climate Change 2007

Reference: Dietz, S. and Stern, N. (2008). Why Economic Analysis Supports Strong Action on Climate Change: A Response to the Stern Review's Critics. Review of Environmental Economics and Policy. Doi:10.1093/reep/ren001.

Darwin Exhibition Launches in London

The biggest ever exhibition on the life and work of Charles Darwin has today opened at the Natural History Museum in London.

Highlights of the exhibition, which is on until 19 April 2009, include rare specimens of Galapagos mockingbirds, never before displayed, which were instrumental in the development of Darwin's thinking on the theory of evolution whilst on the HMS Beagle. Other exhibits include live specimens and a recreation of Darwin's study at Down House in Kent.

2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of 'On the Origin of Species', and this is the first of a number of events which will run over the course of the next year marking these important milestones. Find out more about these at the 'Darwin 200' website.

Pavan Sukhdev Gives Annual Darwin Initiative Lecture

Pavan Sukhdev, leader of the TEEB review (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity), yesterday delivered the 9th annual Darwin Initiative Lecture in London.

The central theme of Mr Sukhdev's presentation was the need for a 'new economics' to take into account measures of human progress traditionally excluded from nations' GDP figures. He gave the example of India, with newspaper headlines currently proclaiming 9% GDP growth, despite the global economic downturn. Mr Sukhdev challenged this figure: did this equate to a 9% increase in the quality of healthcare delivered for the population, for example? A quote from a leading economist, taken in 1968, stressed that "GDP is unfit for purpose"; Mr Sukhdev argued that nothing had changed in this respect.

The example of Yasuni National Park, Ecuador, ilustrated the possibilities offered by removing 'public goods' from the public domain and so avoiding the so-called 'Tragedy of the Commons'. Ecuador has pledged not to exploit the 20% of its proven oil field found within the national park, calculating a £1.6 billion opportunity cost for not doing so, and pricing the carbon it will have 'locked in' the oil field at £1.7 billion, based on the market rate for carbon. Ecuador is currently seeking investors under this REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) initiative. The investment will allow the country to spend on renewable technologies, shifting away from oil dependence, and be channelled into communities for an improvement in the population's quality of life.

Breakout groups followed the lecture, considering the next stages of the TEEB review. It was clear from discussion that, in order to mainstream valuation of ecosystem services and 'natural capital' into decision making, the results of the review must be considered not just by countries' environment ministries but by their treasuries, and by the World Bank. Over the next few months the TEEB team will be seeking input into their review, in the form of evidence, and further suggestions for influencing policy-makers.

For more information see:

IUSS Select Committee Announces New Inquiry

The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee has announced a new inquiry into 'Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy'. The Committee is seeking evidence on, amongst other things:

  • whether there should be a Department for Science
  • strengths and weaknesses of how Government currently formulates science policy
  • whether the views of the science and engineering community are, or should be, central to the formulation of government policy
  • engaging the public and increasing public confidence in science and engineering policy
  • the role of GO-Science, DIUS and other Government departments, charities, learned societies, Regional Development Agencies, industry and other stakeholders in determining UK science and engineering policy
  • how government science and engineering policy should be scrutinised.

The BES is planning to respond to this consultation, by the deadline of Monday 12 January. If you would like to contribute to this response, e-mail, by, at the latest, Friday 12 December.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Towards A Sustainable Society - What is the Correct Role for Science?

Yesterday evening the Royal Society played host to the Institute of Environmental Sciences' Burntwood Lecture, presented by former Friends of the Earth Director and Special Adviser to the Prince of Wales' Rainforest Project: Tony Juniper.

All the major environmental issues of the last fifty years or so were mentioned: the effects of DDT accumulation in raptors; sulphur and nitrogen deposition creating acid rain, impacting on people, forests and livestock; CFC particulates causing ozone depletion; and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulting in global climate change.

Tony emphasised the critical role that science played in firstly, the identification of these issues as serious problems for the environment and society, but also in making the case for effective policy change.

Policy change came in the form of the Montreal Protocol in order to end CFC use in domestic products and allow stratospheric ozone layer to recover. None of these issues have been 'solved' completely - although DDT was eventually banned in Britain and Europe, it is still used widely in malaria hotspots across Africa to reduce mosquito abundance and disease incidence. However effective steps have been taken around the world to reduce the relative impacts of these pollutants.

The emphasis of the talk was on the biggest challenge the world faces currently: climate change. With the previous environmental problems, the compounds requiring bans had effective alternatives (i.e. less harmful pesticides) or were an unimportant by-product of an important process, (e.g. CFCs from refrigerator coolants and nitrogen and sulphuric oxides from power stations). Unlike the aforementioned issues, tackling climate change requires massively reducing the output of GHGs; gases inextricably linked to the everyday lives of everyone on the planet in terms of food, transport and energy.

In summary, Tony's talk covered well-trodden ground and seemed to lack any refreshing or challenging ideas. The message that the scientist's role, is and will continue to be instrumental in tackling climate change and emerging threats, is an important one. It is imperative however that innovative ways continue to be sought to engage government, policy-makers and justify the case for change to the wider public.

Check out the Royal Society website here, and the Institute of Environment Sciences website here

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Fiddler Crabs Use Dishonesty to Deter Rivals

Dishonesty in ecology, as a policy for deterring potential rivals, has not been thought of as a common strategy across the animal kingdom until recently.

Dishonesty has been a long-standing conundrum in evolutionary ecology. Previously, well-respected researchers such as Harper & Maynard Smith (2003) and Zahavi (1975) have conceded that cheating is unlikely to evolve as an effective strategy because of the costs of producing dishonest signals. However, new research published in the British Ecological Society's Functional Ecology journal sheds light on how animals can feign their fighting prowess.

Research focusing on fiddler crabs Uca mjoebergi - so-called because when waving their oversized claw to a female they appear to be playing a fiddle - suggests dishonesty could be much more widespread than previously thought. The research is all the more exciting because, by definition dishonesty is notoriously hard to detect.

There are around 100 species of fiddler crabs world wide, and they tend to live in mangrove swamps and mudflats.

Fiddler crabs provide a good model species to resolve the question of whether armaments, such as claws, are capable of being dishonest. This is because they possess an overtly enlarged claw, not only used in battle to defend territories but to assess fighting ability prior to an encounter, in order to prevent a costly fight. The claw is also used by females to identify high quality partners, so there is a two-fold advantage to possessing an oversized claw in terms of signalling.

The lead author of the research Simon Lailvaux from the Australian National University said: “By studying exactly how animals fight, and what physiological and performance capacities enable males to win fights, we’re getting closer to identifying which traits are likely to be generally important for male combat. Honest signalling is important for several reasons, primarily because it’s important that fights don’t always escalate into bloody violence."

If male fiddler crabs lose a claw in battle, they are able to regenerate a new claw. The potential for cheating lies in their ability to produce a new claw that is similar in size and impressiveness to the previous claw, but lacking in equivalent strength and effectiveness when fighting.

The researchers pitted males caught from the wild against each other under controlled laboratory conditions, to determine the effectiveness of original vs. regenerated claws in signalling (deterring a rival male from fighting) and fighting (defeating a rival male). Losers of encounters between rival males left the territory, making it easy to identify the victor.

The researchers found that, although size was generally correlated with strength and fighting ability, weaker regenerated claws did not perform as well as original claws in fights.

Lailvaux said: "Males with regenerated claws can 'bluff' their fighting ability, like bluffing in a poker game. They’re not good fighters, but the deceptive appearance of their claw allows them to convince other males that it’s not worth picking a fight with them. "

This research also exposes the cost associated with bearing a dishonest signal. Generally, males tend to challenge other males of similar claw size. When males are forced to defend intruders possessing a strong original claw from burrows , the bluff is exposed and they tend to lose. There is also possibly an evolutionary pressure to keep cheating to a minimum, as has been documented in yeast (Greig and Travisano 2004). Since dishonest males are in the overwhelming minority (~7% of the study population), there is clearly sufficient scope for them to get away with it.

Source: Simon P Lailvaux, Leeann T Reaney and Patricia R Y Backwell (2008).
Dishonesty signalling of fighting ability and multiple performance
traits in the fiddler crab Uca mjoebergi. Functional Ecology, doi:
10.1111/j.1365-2435.2008.01501.x, is published online on 12 November 2008.


Greig D., andTravisano, M., 2007, The Prisoner's Dilemma and polymorphism in yeast SUC genes, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Vol 271, pp 25-26

Harper, D. & Maynard Smith, J. (2003) Animal Signals. Oxford University
Press, Oxford.

Zahavi, A. (1975) Mate selection: a selection for a handicap. Journal of
Theoretical Biology, 53, 205–214.

Monday, 10 November 2008

North Atlantic Rays and Sharks Face Extinction

The IUCN have today announced the findings of an investigation into the state of the North Atlantic's rays and sharks; 26 per cent of these face extinction with 20% 'near threatened.'

The estimated percentage is conservative however, insofar as many of the species (27%) assessed lacked sufficient data to effectively assess their status. Even the conservative estimate of 26 per cent threatened, is much greater than the global average of 18 per cent.

Claudine Gibson, former Programme Officer for the IUCN SSG and lead author of the report said: “Most sharks and rays are exceptionally vulnerable to overfishing because of their tendency to grow slowly, mature late, and produce few young. Those at greatest risk of extinction in the northeast Atlantic include heavily fished, large sharks and rays, like porbeagle and common skate, as well as commercially valuable deep water sharks and spiny dogfish.”

Presently the UK and Sweden are leading Europe on marine conservation, with full protection offered for some shark and ray species. The EU has imposed some limits on skate and ray species, although full consideration to scientists' recommendations has not yet been conceded.

The primary cause of their alarming status is overfishing. As the annual meeting for EU quotas looms closer, there will be opportunities to bolster the recovery of these species.

Sonja Fordham, Deputy Chair of the IUCN SSG and Policy Director for the Shark Alliance called for government officials to listen up and take notice:

"Country officials should heed the dire warnings of this report and act to protect threatened sharks and rays at national, regional and international levels. Such action is immediately possible and absolutely necessary to change the current course toward extinction of these remarkable ocean animals,"

This report highlights the urgent need to ratify the Marine Bill, due to be announced in the forthcoming Queen's speech.

Friday, 7 November 2008

New Approach Needed to Conserving UK Biodiversity - EAC

The Environmental Audit Committee has today published its report into 'Halting UK Biodiversity Loss'. The Committee call for a new approach to address dramatic declines in biodiversity across England and in the UK's Overseas Territories (OTs).

The Committee find that the Government is on course to miss the key target to halt biodiversity loss by 2010, with many species and habitats facing severe declines and local extinctions across England. The Committee has particularly criticised the Government's policies with respect to the UK's OTs; it's failure to act in relation to previous recommendations of the Committee to protect the environment of the territories means that the biodiversity of these areas now faces its 'eleventh hour'.

The Committee call upon the Government to adopt an ecosystems approach to conservation, taking into account the implications of the policy of all Government Departments for the natural environment when making decisions and thinking beyond simply a 'protected area' approach to conservation. The Committee welcome the Government's decision to conduct an ecosystem assessment for England, but state that this should be just a first-step to a wider cross-departmental initiative.

Calling on the Government to take urgent action to protect the environment of the UK's Territories, Tim Yeo MP, Committee Chair, said: "One of the most important contributions the Government could make to slow the catastrophic global diversity loss currently occurring, would be to accept its environmental responsibility for our Overseas Territories." The Committee recommend that responsibility for the OTs is transferred from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to Defra.

See Full Report
Read the joint BES- Institute of Biology response to the consultation on 'Halting UK Biodiversity Loss'

New System Improves River Basin Health Assessment for Water Framework Directive

Scientists have recently developed a new computer modeling system that will improve the way in which river basins are assessed for the European Water Framework Directive.

The system has been named the Elbe decision support system, (Elbe-DSS), after the river it was initially developed for assessing, the River Elbe, one of the largest in Europe.

The system will specifically monitor the following elements of river catchment:

  • Simulation models, representing the effect of different inputs such as rainfall, nutrient levels, and climate changes
  • Databases including soil maps and rainfall records
  • Management actions such as reforestation or erosion control
  • External constraints such as demographic change or agriculture policy
  • Management objectives such as reduction of emissions, improvement of water quality, or reduction of nutrients into the sea

  • One of the strengths of this system is that it will help cross-border collaboration in tackling river management objectives. The system can be intelligently manipulated in order to assess the likely impacts of likely changes in variables affecting the catchment area, such as reforestation and increased/decreased fertiliser input.

    Having tested theory against practice, it has proved to be reliable in predicting nutrient levels across the whole river basin. Because the system can be applied at various spatial scales, it means that approaches can be taken at specific locations across the modeled area in an efficient way. It also allows management actions to be ranked in importance according to modeled assumptions about future environmental and demographic changes.

    The system is free and available from the German Federal Institute of Hydrology, (although the website is currently under construction and written in German).

    This article is adapted from the Science Environment Policy Bulletin, Source: Lautenbach, S., Berlekamp, J., Graf, N. et al. (2009). Scenario analysis and management options for sustainable river basin management: Application of the Elbe DSS. Environmental Modelling and Software. 24(1): 26-43.