V for Vulture

I have recently returned from a field trip to Swazliand where I was working with my long-time collaborator Prof Ara Monadjem to tag two African White-backed Vultures with high-spec trackers. These devices were purchased with a $20,000 grant from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and are currently sending their locations every minute via the mobile phone network. Up to now we have no idea where the Swazi population of this species forages and this is something the tracking data will reveal. With only a few weeks of tracking data we can see the birds have already ventured into Mozambique and South Africa.

Preparing some bait
Preparing some bait
Ara looking relaxed
Ara looking relaxed
Fitting the transmitter
Fitting the transmitter
Adam looking less relaxed
Adam looking less relaxed
Releasing the bird
Releasing the bird
Where the birds are now
Where the birds are now



Adam Kane, kanead[at]tcd.ie

Photo credit

Andre Botha

Time for the pheasant

Restless_flycatcher04A reminder for the photo competition. We’ll extend the deadline until the 10th June. You can submit one photograph to this album here. Just log in with username ecoevoblog and password is the same. Don’t make it obvious that it’s your image in case it biases the judge. The theme is ‘Fowl Play’. 

Author: Adam Kane, kanead[at]tcd.ie, @P1zPalu

PLANTPOPNET – a global Plant Population Dynamics Network


The environment is changing around us at accelerated rates. Scientists and policy makers have come to realize that large-scale international collaboration and global data syntheses are needed in order to understand universal drivers of current global changes. A response to this need was the emergence of several coordinated distributed experiments worldwide in the last decades. In essence, these globally replicated studies are networks of ecologists around the world, who conceptualize the ecological research questions or participate by following a standardized protocol. Because understanding of ecological phenomena often necessitates long-term observations and experiments, data collection is usually replicated not only spatially, but also temporally across several years or decades. Data are periodically sent to the coordinator and groups of participants analyse data and publish scientific papers. All authors are given credit for their work.

A few examples of such global enterprises are: NutNet, the Nutrient Network, which seeks to quantify the impacts of nutrients and consumers on ecosystems in up to 80 grassland sites globally; HerbDivNet, The Herbaceous Diversity Network, studies patterns of diversity in herbaceous plant communities and the factors that cause those patterns at 30 sites in 19 countries;  GLORIA, the GLobal Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments, targets climate change effects by monitoring diversity shifts in high alpine ecosystems at 121 target regions worldwide. ITEX, the International Tundra Experiment examines the impacts of global warming on tundra ecosystems at more than a dozen sites throughout the world. A recent addition to the list is PLANTPOPNET, the Plant Population Dynamics Network, which is the first to target the long-term monitoring of demographic performance in plant populations worldwide.

Why PLANTPOPNET ? Ecologists use environmental change scenarios to forecast rearrangements in species geographic distribution patterns, such as migrations to track suitable habitats and local extinctions. An overwhelming number of studies use species presences to generate their predictions, assuming for example that if just few individuals are present in a place, the population in that place is doing fine and is guaranteed persistence until conditions change. Such assumptions disregard many ecological mechanisms like local disturbances which may easily swipe populations out of the landscape.  To progress further on this problem, PLANTPOPNET proposes to follow the detailed demographic processes of many plant populations globally under contrasting environmental conditions and in interaction with other organisms, measuring year-to-year performance of at least 100 plants per population. The study design will allow ecologists to answer important questions about the environmental and biological drivers of population performance and extinction, how plants adjust their life history strategies in different environments, and what are the demographic mechanisms of plant invasion.

If interested in joining PLANTPOPNET or if you would like to know more information, contact us at buckleyy@tcd.ie.


Anna Csergo and Yvonne Buckley

Photo credit



Lauchlan H Fraser, Hugh AL Henry, Cameron N Carlyle, Shannon R White, Carl Beierkuhnlein, James F Cahill Jr, Brenda B Casper, Elsa Cleland, Scott L Collins, Jeffrey S Dukes, Alan K Knapp, Eric Lind, Ruijun Long, Yiqi Luo, Peter B Reich, Melinda D Smith, Marcelo Sternberg, and Roy Turkington 2013. Coordinated distributed experiments: an emerging tool for testing global hypotheses in ecology and environmental science. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 147–155. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/110279

PlantPopNet, A Spatially Distributed Model System for Population Ecology. http://plantago.plantpopnet.com/

Birds near airports work the early shift for the dawn chorus

Robin singing

Early morning flights are a pain: nobody likes rolling out of bed at the crack of dawn. But if you’ve spent a few bleary-eyed mornings at airports, spare a thought for the local residents. Birds rely on their song to find a mate and keep intruders out of their territory: not an easy task when you’re competing with the roar of a 747 taking off at 290 km/h. Now, research by scientists in Spain and Germany has found that birds living near major airports sing earlier in the morning to avoid being drowned out by aircraft noise.

Researchers from the National Museum of Natural History in Madrid and Freie Universität in Berlin recorded the dawn chorus at sites around 5 major airports. As lead author, Dr. Diego Gil explained, “the idea came one day that I was taking a very early flight and when I arrived at the airport I heard blackbirds singing very early. I thought that perhaps they were trying to get their voices heard before the planes would start flying”. His hunch turned out to be correct.

The team found that many birds such as robins, blackbirds, cuckoos and blue tits that live near airports sing earlier than is normal for their species. Variation in light pollution and daylight length at each site did not affect the tweeting birds so it seems that noise pollution from the airports is the key factor. This shift in the birds’ normal behaviour appears to be an evolutionary response to the pressures of living in an environment dominated by humans. The research was published in Behavioural Ecology.

The birds start singing early in the morning before the airport is active so they are not simply responding to immediate noisy cues. Instead, they appear to have evolved over many generations to adapt their behaviour to deal with the very predictable high noise levels from airports (starting around 6am and increasing throughout the morning). This ties in with previous research which showed that robins are more likely to sing at night in noisy cities and blackbirds start to sing earlier in areas with high traffic noise. With individual planes generating noise four times louder than bird song, it’s easy to understand why birds have opted for a strategy of avoidance rather than competition with their airport neighbours. 

Changing their singing behaviour could put energetic stresses on the birds. Whether you consider it a melodious wake-up call or a chattering irritation, the dawn chorus is actually a bragging competition. Birds sing to defend their territories (“keep out this is mine”) or else to attract mates (“I’m big and strong so let’s make babies”). Singing costs both time and energy and must be balanced with the need to go and find food. As Dr. Gil commented, “I would think that singing earlier than what is expected for a given species would modify the energy budget for the birds. Of course, it is possible that there is an optimal solution for this, a kind of plan B, and that birds manage to compensate for it, but it surely brings about a challenge.”

The next step will be to determine the consequences of earlier singing times for birds near airports. The researchers plan to study general activity patterns and feeding behaviour to see if the birds are physiologically affected by their shift in singing times.

So, the next time you grumble about getting up for an early flight, think of your feathered neighbours who have to rise for the early shift each morning to sing their wake up songs and beat the airport rush hour.

Author: Sive Finlay, @SiveFinlay

Image: Wikicommons

Wild Goose Chase – cannon netting on the Inishkea Islands

Last March we had the fantastic opportunity to assist with cannon netting Barnacle Geese on the Inishkea Islands, a wild Atlantic outpost off the coast of Co. Mayo. This research was part of Dr David Cabot’s long term study of the Inishkea Barnacle Goose population, which breed in Greenland and return to the west coast of Ireland each winter. Dr Cabot has been studying this population since 1961, providing the longest running dataset of any Arctic migrant breeding in Europe. He established the project as an undergraduate in our very own Zoology Department in Trinity (back in the good old days when Catholics could only join Trinity with the permission of their Archbishop, lest they be corrupted by the insidious Protestant ethos of the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elisabeth!!). Our part in Inishkea was to help catch geese to attach unique inscribed colour ring combinations to their legs. This allows individuals to be tracked to provide information on individual longevity and productivity. Re-sighting of these colour ringed individuals coupled with satellite tracking data have also allowed the timing and route of this population’s migration to be mapped out. Such monitoring is important as a large proportion of the Greenland population of Barnacle Geese winter in Ireland, and Inishkea is one of their most important wintering grounds.

Barnacle Geese grazing alongside sheep among the old houses. © David Cabot.
Barnacle Geese grazing alongside sheep among the old houses. © David Cabot.

As a field site, the Inishkea Islands are mysterious and intriguing. The last of its inhabitants departed in the 1930s following a devastating storm that killed 10 young fishermen at sea. The ruins of the abandoned village, the sea mists and windswept machair lend the landscape an air of wildness. One thing that cannot be denied is that the islands are a haven for interesting wildlife. In Irish they are called Inis Gé, translating as ‘Goose Islands’, and they don’t disappoint. Large flocks of Barnacle Geese still winter in Inishkea, the population having benefited from the cessation of human habitation. As well as the geese, breeding waders such as Lapwing, Redshank and Snipe (particularly within a sheep exclusion fence on the north island) and seabirds such as Fulmars and Little Terns are present in large numbers, along with a colony of several hundred Grey Seals.

Sanderling. © Christian Glahder.
Sanderling. © Christian Glahder.

Therefore we eagerly anticipated our chance to take in the spectacle these islands have to offer. But there was serious business to attend to – catching a sufficient sample of geese to add to the study is a task far easier said than done!  We used a trapping technique called cannon netting. This is a method for catching ground feeding gregarious birds that is just as weird and wonderful as it sounds! A large net is attached to weighted projectiles, which are fired from a series of mortars, propelling the net (hopefully) over its intended target. Unsurprisingly this is a tightly regulated activity, and only three individuals in Ireland are licenced to catch birds this way and only in specific circumstances.

Our catching attempts on Inishkea were led by Alyn Walsh of the NPWS, helped by Dr Cabot’s knowledge of the islands and goose habits. Working with Alyn was an education in fieldcraft, patience and meticulous preparation. The trick to cannon netting is positioning your net in a place your target species will walk straight into. In our case, the geese had a whole island to choose from, so our positioning had to be spot on. Before a catch was attempted, the movements of the goose flocks were carefully observed for their patterns of grazing, looking for natural choke points in the landscape that would draw the geese together in a suitable position for projecting the nets. Following a day of observation, one promising site was selected and baited with barley to attract and then hold the geese in place. By day three on the island, we were confidently prepared for our first attempt. The net was laid and disguised with grass and its mortars were dug in so that only their tips protruded, in the hope the geese wouldn’t know something was amiss…

Digging in the cannons © Darren O’Connell.
Digging in the cannons © Darren O’Connell.

The morning of the catch was akin to the dawn of a battle. Barnacle Geese are not like their more familiar cousin the Brent Goose, which will happily graze in urban parks by busy roads and playgrounds. Barnacle Geese are exasperatingly wary. Any sight of people (even from hundreds of metres away) will send an entire flock off over the horizon. Dr Cabot’s cabin served as our bunker from which we spied on the geese through twitching curtains. Our nerves were on edge as the first goose heads appeared on the brow of the hill and began a steady march grazing towards the catching zone, where the cannons and nets awaited. Any person leaving the single roomed cabin for a ‘comfort break’ was at great risk of alarming the geese. Because of this, we were required to scramble on hands and knees until we reached the cover of the old village, darting from house to house, being sure not to break the skyline and keeping our heads down as if from sniper’s fire.

Having waited in the darkened cabin since dawn, the goose battalion entered our baited field at midday. Lulled into a false sense of security by our extreme stealth and the unexpected windfall of barley, a group of geese fell asleep in the sun – right within our catching zone! They were rudely awoken when (as soon as all birds were in a safe position relative to the cannons) Alyn judged it was time to fire! After two days in the bunker, the blast of the cannons and the smell of gunpowder provided us a suitable adrenaline jolt into manic activity. Following a breakneck sprint to the net, we secured all of the birds safely in special bird-bags (a fantastic catch of 29 geese, the second biggest ever achieved on the island!). To keep handling time to a minimum, we formed a goose “production line” to maximise efficiency in fitting rings, taking morphological measurements and recording data. Processed geese were kept in a holding pen and then released to the wind together in batches of ten. We were lucky to have some geese that had been ringed several years previously, providing valuable data, along with many newly ringed geese.

Extracting geese from the net after cannon fire. © David Cabot.
Extracting geese from the net after cannon fire. © David Cabot.
The team with our goose booty! L-R: Richard Nairn, Darren O’Connell, David Cabot, Maurice Cassidy, Susan Doyle, Alyn Walsh (and Christian Glahder behind the camera!). © Christian Glahder.
The team with our goose booty! L-R: Richard Nairn, Darren O’Connell, David Cabot, Maurice Cassidy, Susan Doyle, Alyn Walsh (and Christian Glahder behind the camera!). © Christian Glahder.
A goose receives its colour rings. © David Cabot.
A goose receives its colour rings. © David Cabot.

We left Inishkea, satisfied with our work and delighted with our experience in this challenging form of bird monitoring. We hope to see many of the geese we caught this year back in Inishkea with goslings after a successful season in the Arctic.

Authors: Darren O’Connell and Susan Doyle

A special thanks to Dr David Cabot, Alyn Walsh, Richard Nairn, Maurice Cassidy and Christian Glahder, for making us part of the team.

Before training your dragon, print a 3D tail for him


3D printing (or additive manufacturing, AM) describes any of the various processes used to make a three-dimensional object. In 3D printing, additive processes are used, in which successive layers of material are laid down under computer control. While its limitless potential in manufacturing, the construction industry, transportation and human health has been widely recognized, 3D printing also plays a significant role in animal protection and conservation.

Several cases of using 3D printing for animal assistance have been reported during the past few years. Although artificial limbs have been used to help poor dogs and other animals who lost their legs, 3D printing makes the design and manufacture of the limbs far easier. And, thanks to the well developed 3D-scanning technology, the printed limbs are more efficient and comfortable for animals. Just see how happy this dog is.

Birds also benefit from 3D printing. This bald eagle and Costa Rican toucan both received printed beaks which will hopefully improve their chances of survival. And a tortoise has even been given a new shell thanks to 3D printing technology.

3D printing can be also applied to animal conservation in the wild. For example, the Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge uses 3D printed drones to save endangered animals from poachers. 3D printing has also been used to build animal habitats including hives for bees, artificial reefs for fish, and nests for birds.

For the sake of scientific education, 3D printed models of skulls, organs and muscles can be used for demonstrations and detailed observations. In research, the technology can play an important role in studies of animal behavior and physical ecology. For example, 3D printed birds and fish can be used to explore how animals adapt to hydraulic resistance.

The wide-ranging potential for using 3D printing in animal protection and conservation seems limitless!

Author: Qiang Yang (Marvin), @MarvinQiangYang

Image Source




Looks can be deceiving

Small Madagascar Hedgehog Tenrec

We are all taught not to judge a book by its cover, it’s what inside that counts. Our new paper published in PeerJ shows that the same is true for tenrecs.

These cute Madagascar natives are often used as an example of a mammal family with high morphological diversity. It’s easy to see why: there are tenrecs which resemble shrews, moles, hedgehogs and even otters. These differences are even more remarkable when you consider that tenrecs are more closely related to elephants and aardvarks than they are to any of the small, “insectivore” mammals. One of only four native mammal clades in Madagascar, it appears that tenrecs have undergone an adaptive radiation to fill otherwise vacant, small mammal niches, evolving convergent similarities to other groups in the process.

Tenrecs are clearly very diverse in their appearance. However, prior to our study, no one had tested whether this apparently high diversity was more than skin deep. We tested whether tenrecs were more morphologically diverse than their closest relatives, the golden moles.

We measured the morphology of tenrec skulls and compared their diversity to the shape of golden mole skulls. This meant spending hours poking around the collections of natural history museums and many more hours placing landmarks on skull pictures for 2D geometric morphometrics analyses (Spotify was my friend!)

Pictures of an otter shrew tenrec (Potamogale velox) skull showing that landmarks (points) and semilandmarks (curves) that we used to summarise skull shape. See the paper for more information.
Pictures of an otter shrew tenrec (Potamogale velox) skull showing that landmarks (points) and semilandmarks (curves) that we used to summarise skull shape. See the paper for more information.

Tenrecs occupy a wider range of ecological niches (fossorial, arboreal, terrestrial and aquatic) than golden moles so we expected that tenrecs would be more morphologically diverse than their cousins. However, we found that tenrec skulls only have more diverse shapes than golden moles when we compared them in lateral (sideways) view but not dorsal or ventral views. These results show the importance of measuring morphology in many different views to gain a more complete understanding of overall morphological diversity.

The tenrec family includes species which convergently resemble many other, un-related small mammals. However, most tenrecs (19 out of the 31 tenrec species in our analysis) belong to the shrew-like Microgale tenrec genus. So, although many people tend to focus on the strange and unusual species (such as the otter shrew, hedgehog tenrec or the bizarre lowland streaked tenrec), most tenrecs are small, shrewy-type creatures that look very similar.

Microgale cowani
Microgale cowani

We tested whether the similarities among the Microgale tenrecs might be masking higher morphological diversity in the rest of the family. We repeated our analyses to compare the diversity of golden mole skulls to a sub-set of the tenrec family (including just 5 of the 19 Microgale species).  In this case, tenrec skulls were more morphologically diverse than golden mole skulls in all comparisons (skulls in dorsal, ventral and lateral view).

Overall, our results indicate that, while there are clear physical differences among tenrec family members, the majority of tenrecs are quite morphologically similar to each other so morphological diversity in the family as a whole is not as big as it first appears. Of course comparing skull diversity is just one aspect of overall morphology – analysing the shape of other traits such as limbs could yield different results – but our study represents the first step towards a greater understanding of the ecological and evolutionary diversity of tenrecs.

It’s also testimony to the fact that you should never judge a tenrec by its cover.

Author: Sive Finlay, @SiveFinlay

Everything’s Better Down Where It’s Wetter: Benthic Ecology Meeting 2015


Conference attendance can really impact your development as a Ph.D. student and give you great ideas for future collaboration and research. In March, I was lucky enough to attend the 2015 Benthic Ecology Meeting (or Benthics) in Quebec City, Canada.  The Benthics meeting focuses on the ecology of the bottom layer of water systems, and this conference is mainly marine in focus. There were lots of great talks, one epic toboggan race, and nearly unlimited opportunities for networking and discussion. A quick overview of my three favourite talks is below. Check out what you missed and hope to see you in Maine next year!

1. “Measuring non-additive selection from multiple species interactions” by Dr. Casey terHorst. Dr. terHorst’s non-marine talk focused on a method for determining whether selection is occurring by examining traits present when multiple species interact. His talk highlighted the relative ease of using the analysis he developed, as well as the exciting outcomes of one particular study. If you have trait response data from a study with multiple species interactions, you may be able to utilize his analysis as well to see if non-additive selection is occurring. The analysis is detailed here and you can check out his website on ecology and evolution here.

2. “Is a warmer world a sicker world? Temperature effects on host-parasite dynamics” by Jennafer C. Malek. Jennafer’s presentation was easily my favorite of the parasitology-themed talks at this year’s conference. She utilized a very straightforward study design to examine whether oysters or their parasites would die off first at elevated temperature. The oysters are often exposed to the air at low tide, and at temperatures consistent with climate change predictions it seems that parasites die off before the oysters do. The dynamics of this relationship have interesting consequences and may provide a level of resilience for oysters in a changing world. Her study is a prime example of the use of a simple experimental design to answer big ecological questions.

3. “Potential larval connectivity of deep-sea methane seep invertebrates in the Intra-American Sea” by Doreen McVeigh. Sometimes a talk blows your mind and shifts your worldview and this was one of those talks. Based on modelling work on larval transport in the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast, Doreen demonstrated that frequently assumed transport routes may not be the actual transport pathways many species travel. Her models were fascinating and potentially revolutionary, plus she explained them in a way that almost everyone could understand. You can check her out on twitter here.

A huge thanks to the Voss, O’Connor, Burkepile, URI, Fish lab, and UNC groups for making the conference such a blast and live-tweeting the sessions. You can check out the official twitter for some discussion on the conference and some fun photos below.

Author: Maureen Williams, william2[at]tcd.ie

Photo credit: http://www.bemsociety.org/