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.

    Thursday, 6 November 2008

    Art Meets Ecology: Short Films Represent Ecological Challenges

    Tuesday 4 November saw the launch of the RSA's Arts and Ecology showcase of STOP.WATCH. The event comprised of seven short films, alluding to the fragility of nature and artistically representing ecological problems.

    The films were commissioned especially for the internet and represent a unique means of communicating issues the planet faces. Witty, thought-provoking and at times obscure; the films remained an eye-opening take on complex ecological issues. The soundtracks were particularly impressive and engaging on a number of the short stills, all of which can be seen on the Arts and Ecology website.

    Most impressive of all was a poem written by Melanie Challenger, (Creative Fellow at the Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity, University College London), about one of the short films entitled Shattered. Melanie spoke of the need to conserve, at the very least document, local, unique extant languages around the world. Languages contain words that convey a particular meaning to a social dynamic peculiar to a given location. When lost, for example a description of the properties of a particular plant or an ailment, then so to is all the associated local knowledge.

    Overall, the event provided an opportunity to network with a crowd of interesting and diverse backgrounds, and demonstrated the variety in which scientific issues can be communicated effectively.

    Tuesday, 4 November 2008

    Volunteer at the BES

    The BES has an opportunity for an intern to assist the Science Policy Team for up to three months, working for two days each week. Although this position is not paid, the BES will cover lunch costs (up to £5 per day) and travel expenses within London.

    Assist the Society's policy officer in monitoring current legislation in the UK and EU, contribute to consultation responses and briefing papers, help to organise policy meetings and events and to maintain the Ecology and Policy Blog. This is a fantastic way for a graduate with a knowledge of, or interest in, ecology, to gain valuable experience of working in science policy.

    For more information see the BES website.

    To apply, send your CV and a covering letter, explaining why you are interested in the post and giving details of your availability, to no later than Friday 28 November. Interviews will be held in the morning of Wednesday 10 December.

    Patagonian Fungus Diesel: An Alternative Biofuel?

    Scientists have recently discovered that a tree fungus Gliocladium roseum, produces compounds of long-chain hydrocarbons very similar in structure to commercial diesel.

    The lead scientist of the research, Gary Strobel, from Montana State University said: "This is the only organism that has ever been shown to produce such an important combination of fuel substances... ...we were totally surprised to learn that it was making a plethora of hydrocarbons."

    The work is due to be published in the journal Microbiology next month, where the compounds have been described as 'mycodiesels.' The research also documents the ability of the fungus to break down cellulose - the structure that makes up the plant cell wall with lignin - to create the mycodiesel. Previously, cellulose has been converted to biofuels in a two-step process requiring enzymes to create sugars from the cell wall followed by microbes to convert sugars to ethanol.

    The find illustrates the very real and unthinkably diverse compounds in the depths of our remaining forests, and highlights the desperate need to conserve what we have left. The research also comes at a time when traditional taxonomy is in precipitous decline, making the case to educate more young taxonomists even stronger. There is great potential for the discovery of new medicines and fuels derived from biodiversity across many ecosystems, from forests to the marine environment.

    Although excited by the news, Tariq Butt, a fungus expert based at Swansea University, urged caution:

    "Concept-wise, the discovery and its potential applications are fantastic. However, more research is needed, as well as a pilot study to determine the costs and benefits. Even so, another potential supply of renewable fuel allows us to diversify our energy sources and is certainly an exciting discovery."

    Monday, 3 November 2008

    REDD - Tackling Climate Change and Biodiversity Loss

    Climate change remains a present and future threat to biodiversity. REDD, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, aims to curb climate change by conserving the world's remaining forests.

    REDD aim to ensure that measures to tackle climate change include accounting for the carbon sinks that forests and bogs provide. After lenghty dialogue, both the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol have made provisions to reduce emissions released from forest degradation and deforestation.

    December 07 witnessed the unilateral agreement between the conference of the parties to strengthen agreements made at the fourteenth conference. UNEP and WCMC have now produced a paper that outlines opportunities for multiple benefits of forest protection, including increased watershed and coastal protection.

    It seems likely that protection of native forests will offer greater resilience to the effects of climate change than new plantations, and this should be taken into consideration in decision-making.