Research haikus

Last month, the Zoology Department’s Dr. David Kelly launched his first book of Japanese short form poetry, Hammerscale from the Thrush’s Anvil. At the launch of the book, David invited us in the audience to try our hand at writing our own haikus.

Taking him up on his challenge, and taking inspiration from his book, a few of us in the School of Natural Sciences have penned our own poems based on our areas of study. We even have a contribution from David Kelly himself!

Trying not to sacrifice coherency at the alter of syllable number was a rather new struggle for most of us, but we managed and, I’d like to think, emerged with a greater appreciation for the poets in our midst. Read on for our science-y foray into the arts!

(Paula Tierney @_ptierney)


Yellow red fish eyes

Maybe that’s a nematode?

No, it is more fish

Paula Tierney


Carbon fixed by plants

Then sequestered in the soil

Helps to keep Earth cool

Matt Saunders


Hoverflies hover

Syrphidae flying over

Gardens of flowers

Sarah Gabel


Monochrome poets

Curved claws etching musky spoors

Into the cold night

Aoibheann Gaughran Continue reading “Research haikus”

Trump and the future of “America’s best idea.”


In 1872 Yellowstone National Park was established as the first National Park not only in the USA, but in the world. President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, and so the National Parks were born. Today 59 National Parks exist throughout the United States, covering approximately 51.9 million acres with the goal of maintaining in perpetuity both wildlife and their habitat. Since 1916 the National Park Service (NPS) has been entrusted with the care of these National Parks, and this year they celebrate their centenary.

The National Parks have been referred to as “America’s best idea”, an ideology that has spread across the globe promoting the conservation of what little natural habitat and resources remain. What began as a single National Park in 1872 has spread to over 100 nations and been built up to approximately 1,200 National Parks.

In the wake of Trump’s shock election win, researchers, scientists, conservationists and a significant proportion of the public are lamenting for our natural world.It is no secret that Donald Trump does not openly believe in climate change, refusing to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence. Not only this but he has also promised to dismantle the Paris Agreement which sought to limit the temperature rise associated with global warming to below 2°C in order to reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.

Today the NPS actively teaches about, and warns of, the dangers of climate change to both the National Parks and the natural world at large. However, it is feared that the NPS will be silenced under a Trump Administration. Under the second Bush Administration talk of climate change by the NPS was prohibited under a decree from the Secretary of the Interior. Similar circumstances are expected under a Trump Administration, with Sarah Palin expected to be made Secretary of the Interior. If this comes to fruition then Palin would oversee the extraction of natural resources on approximately 500 million acres of public land, including the iconic National Parks, such as the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. Palin’s stance on natural resources leaves little hope as she has actively campaigned for the drilling of oil within the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, the nation’s largest Wildlife Refuge, at the expense of the wildlife within it: “If a caribou needs to be sacrificed for the sake of energy … I say, ‘Mr. Caribou, maybe you need to take one for the team.’” Continue reading “Trump and the future of “America’s best idea.””

The expanding tropics 

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It was a spring day in April 2004 when Qiang Fu first noticed the anomoly in the data. On either side of the equator – in a belt strecthing from 15 to 45 degrees latitude – the lower atmosphere was warming more than anywhere else on the planet. Fu, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, was stumped.


It wasn’t until a year later that Fu realized what he had discovered: evidence of a rapid expansion of the tropics, the region that encircles Earth’s waist like a green belt. The heart of the tropics is lush, but the northern and southern edges are dry. And these parched borders are growing — expanding into the subtropics and pushing them toward the poles.

The expansion of the tropics is the subject of my latest feature, which appears in a recently published edition of Nature. You can read the full feature online at (behind a paywall).  But here, I’ll give you a taste of what it’s about.

In the past ten years – since Fu first published his discovery in the journal Science – scientists have been turned their attention to this subject in a big way – there have been lots of scientific papers, theories and measurements – yet it’s had surprisingly little coverage by the media.

I’d thought about writing on this topic for a while and the time seemed right when I noticed that a bunch of 50 or so scientists were meeting last summer in New Mexico to trash this topic out. The meeting itself wasn’t open to the media, which was unfortunate, but I‘ve since managed to talk to a lot of the people who gathered for five days in that hot conference room in Santa Fe last summer.

I wanted to know answers to the same questions as those scientists, and those conversations would form the basis of my article. I’ve been writing about climate change for more than ten years now, and so I’m used to a lot of uncertainty in science. It was good preparation for writing this piece! On tropical expansion, still so many questions remain unanswered, such as how fast is it happening, what’s causing it and where are the future boundaries of the tropics likely to be? And importantly, why should we care?

Well, you’ll have to read the feature to get an answer to all of those questions, but I’ll answer a couple of them for you here.

How fast is it happening? Estimates range from less than half a degree of latitude per decade to several degrees of latitude per decade over the last few decades. At the more extreme end, that’s like moving London to the latitude of Rome over the course of a century. Pretty big deal. But it’s worth pointing out that some of the more recent estimates have been more moderate; they’re still bad news for cities such as San Diego, though, that would experience a big impact even with a one degree latitude shift in the edge of the tropics.


As to why we should care, well there are lots of reasons: aside from the potential water crisis for major cities such as San Diego, Perth and Santiago. tropical expansion could wreak havoc for some of the world’s most fertile fishing grounds, global grain production could shrink and biodiversity, especially at the southern tips of the African and Australian continents, (and they are astoundingly diverse) will suffer.


Now, if you’re interested in geeking out on all the details (and, in my view, reading the real story, which is about what is happening way up in the atmosphere near the Equator), check out the full story on Nature:


author: Olive Heffernan (@O_Heffernan)

image: Amy Toensing/National Geographic Creative

The importance of being Earnest – The case of climate change


In Oscar Wilde’s comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest”, Cecily and Gwendolen want to marry a man named Ernest simply because of the name’s connotations. They are so fixated on the name that they would not consider marrying a man who was not named Ernest. The name, sounding like “earnest”, shows uprightness, inspires “absolute confidence”, implies that its bearer truly is honest and responsible.

A name can truly be very important when it embodies the communication of a message. Surprisingly (or not) it is also important when dealing with international treaties and initiatives. An example is the story of the Ozone Hole and the Montreal Protocol, the most successful governmental agreement on an environmental problem at the global scale. The Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987 by 46 countries (now having nearly 200 signatories), banned the use and production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) worldwide, recognizing that they represented a threat for the stratospheric ozone layer. During the celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the Protocol, Jonathan Shanklin, Head of Meteorology and Ozone Monitoring Unit for the British Antarctic Survey declared that in retrospect, the Ozone Hole was a really good thing to call the ozone depletion problem “because an Ozone Hole must be bad. Almost automatically, it meant that people wanted something doing about it. The hole had to be filled in”.

Much more confusion is involved in naming another problem at the same global scale: global warming, or climate change. The international agreement on it, the Kyoto Protocol, is not being as successful as the Montreal one.

“Global warming” and “Climate change” are two different phenomena, casually related. “Global warming” refers to the observation of a long-term trend of increasing temperatures. “Climate change” refers to different changes in climate phenomena driven by the increasing concentration of greenhouse-gases in the atmosphere. The alternative use of the two “names” probably contributed to the misunderstanding of the problem for the general public, giving alibis to those who are (conveniently) sceptical about climate change. That happens for example whenever a winter is colder than the year before, or more snowy, then “where is the global warming?”.

Surely the fact that the Montreal Protocol was successful and Kyoto Protocol is not, has much more profound and complex reasons than just the “naming”. There is however a trade-off between scientific rigour and effective communication to deal with. Scientific rigour should guide our management plans, effective communication should stimulate actions.

The scientific community and political stakeholders have to be “earnest” in balancing rigour and communication strength.


Luca Coscieme, coscieml[at]

Photo credit


The Easter bunny’s origins are linked with climate change


The Easter Bunny apparently originated in German Lutherans’ traditions before 1682 when it was first mentioned in von Franckenau’s De ovis paschalibus. In France and Belgium however, it’s not a rabbit that hides eggs in the garden for Easter morning but flying bells coming back from Rome (they went there for their holidays since the Maundy Thursday). For many people this makes no sense at all (flying bells, come on!) but on the other hand I think that a bunny carrying coloured eggs and hiding them does not make much more sense…

However, the Easter bunny makes a bit more sense than the bells after re-reading Ge et al.’s excellent paper, on the evolution of rabbits, hares and pikas (careful: cuteness overload!).

Lagomorphs originated in the early Eocene in Asia (that’s around 55-50 Mya – million years ago), they then split during the mid-late Eocene (~40 Mya) into the two families we know today, the Orchotonidae (the pikas and 31 other genera) and the Leporidae (hares and rabbits, 45 genera). As you might have noticed from my former posts, I’m vaguely (vaguely, vaguely, vaguely) interested in integrating fossils and living species within phylogenies, well Ge et al’s paper is a really good example of why one should not ignore past diversity. If you only look at living Orchotonids, you would miss the 31 other genera (97% of the family’s generic diversity!). Furthermore, if you only look at the body mass variation in living species of Leporids you would miss the rabbit T.rexNuralagus rex.

So now let us go back to our question and see when did the Easter bunny really originate and what are the origins of its family’s diversity. During the late Eocene/early Oligocene (~35-31 Mya), the climate was warmer, wetter and had higher CO2 levels than nowadays. This climate corresponded with a landscape dominated by forest and an increased distribution of C3 “grasses” notably Asteraceae, Rosaceae and Fabaceae which happens to be the principal diet of Orchotonids leading to an increased diversification in this group. However, Leporids, which appeared roughly during the same period, remained less diversified than their cute cousins.

The climate became gradually colder and drier during the Oligocene and Miocene period to reach a global cold and dry climate during the late Miocene (~5-10 Mya) slightly after “Nature’s Green Revolution” leading to the expansion of C4 “grasses” namely the poaceae (the true grasses). During this period, the number of Ochotonid genera “dramatically decreased” (to quote the authors) however Leporids expanded in both geographic range and generic diversity.

According to the authors, it was this “Nature’s Green Revolution” and the rise of the C4 plants that drove the shift in dominance between the two families of Lagomorphs, allowing the Leporids, that could digest C4 plants successfully and therefore benefit more from the increasingly open landscapes to radiate during the Pliocene (~5 Mya).  Hopping may look ridiculous but it is actually a really efficient way to move around in open grasslands. This pattern of adaptation to global cooling and the rise of C4 plants is also found in the evolution of the Bovidae and Equidae.

So Ge et al.’s study gives us an explanation for why it is an Easter bunny that hides the eggs in C4 grass and not an Easter pika (hiding it in C3 grass). However, it is important to stress that these findings don’t in any way detract from flying bells or why we colour eggs

Author: Thomas Guillerme, guillert[at], @TGuillerme

Image Source: Wikicommons

Systematic Reviews


Before I came to TCD, I spent my last six months at Lancaster University working with Dr Georgina Key on a systematic review of methods to make agricultural soils more resilient to threats like climate change, and erosion. What is a systematic review I hear you cry? Allow me to elaborate, and share some of our experiences from doing something slightly different.

A systematic review draws together and summarises the available scientific literature surrounding a particular topic or method. The Cochrane Collaboration, which produces systematic reviews in medicine and healthcare, defines such reviews as “a systematic, up-to-date summary of reliable evidence”. The aim of a systematic review is to provide the public, policy-makers and practitioners with a clear, unbiased picture of the latest, most reliable science on a certain practice, so that they can make informed decisions on how suitable that method is likely to be for them.

The goal of our systematic review was to produce a list of actions that could be used to improve the resilience of agricultural soils under pressure from a variety of threats. The first steps we took involved coming up with a list of key issues that would be important to manage agricultural soils in order to maintain sustainable food production in the future. We then took to the peer-reviewed literature, searching for experimentally tested solutions to the issues we’d identified, using a combination of journal trawls and keyword searches.

Journal trawls involved identifying relevant journals, like Soil Use and Management and Geoderma, then systematically searching all volumes of each journal for articles involving the issues we’d identified. Our keyword searches took a more targeted approach, using combinations of keywords to whittle down a selection of relevant articles. These approaches produced a large number of articles – far too many to summarise effectively in the time available – so we shortlisted them based on a number of criteria, foremost of which was ‘Has the action (e.g. non-inversion tillage) been tested using a robust, experimental design?’ We also filtered our keyword searches, carried out in ISI Web of Science, to the top 100 results, sorted by relevance.

Having eventually come up with a list of articles that tested the actions we’d identified, we set about summarising them. This was done according to a set template, using a specific style. This was initially restrictive, and difficult to adapt to – each article had to be summarised using specific vocabulary, within 200 words – but it ensured that the summaries would be understandable by people without a science background, and that the key message of the article wouldn’t be obscured by our own prejudices regarding the research.

Writing the summaries was the most time-consuming, but also one of the most rewarding, aspects of the project. By writing lots of summaries, we started to develop more of an understanding of how to write about science in a way that completely avoided jargon. This isn’t as easy as it sounds! But it is a vital skill for scientists to learn, in order to communicate their work to the public, and the people who will eventually turn it into policy. Having read lots of abstracts, those that stood out were the ones that communicated the message of the paper succinctly, in language that a non-expert could understand.

The article summaries and key messages from our short synopsis are now online– you can select an ‘action’, and read through the key messages, definitions, and all the evidence that we found and summarised for the use of that action, and its effects, in agriculture. I think there’s real value of having all this information collated together in one place, and communicated in an understandable way. Our soils synopsis is one of a number of synopses that you can browse through on the NERC Sustainable Food Knowledge Exchange Programme website.

Although it was only a short project, putting the synopsis together was a rewarding experience for both of us, particularly in terms of communication skills developed and networks joined. The synopsis that we produced is by no means the final product, and will need to be updated in the future to keep up with the amount of continual research in this area. The next step is to assess the synopsis, and its implicit recommendations, by asking experts and practitioners in the field how effective they think the research we covered would be, if it was implemented. This step should provide valuable feedback, helping to highlight any gaps in our synopsis, as well as improving future synopses.

Authors: Mike Whitfield and Georgina Key

About the authors

Mike Whitfield has a PhD in peatland carbon cycling from Lancaster University. Last year he helped to design and implement a long-term grassland biodiversity experiment in the Yorkshire Dales and worked with Georgina Key on the soil sustainability synopsis for six months, before moving to Dublin. Mike’s current postdoc at TCD focuses on modelling greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural land, with the aim of producing a map of estimated greenhouse gas emissions from soil for the whole of Ireland.

Twitter: @mgwhitfield

Georgina Key has a PhD in ecosystem service provision, specifically conservation pest control. Having completed her first postdoc at Manchester reviewing literature on maintaining soil fertility, she is currently doing an assessment of the literature in collaboration with Cambridge University and Waitrose. In the future she hopes to work with tea and coffee companies, implementing sustainable growing practices and improving rural livelihoods.


Twitter: @KeyGeorgina


Image credit: Treehouse1977 on Flickr


Earth day


Monday 22nd April was Earth Day. In schools and offices all around the world people organised events to highlight the importance of the Earth and the harm that climate change, deforestation, and other human impacts are causing.

As an ecologist and someone who cares about conservation I should welcome Earth Day and its relative, Earth Hour, with open arms. Shouldn’t’ I? Maybe, but I really can’t. In fact, I find these sorts of events incredibly frustrating. Implicit within them is the idea that if we spend one day really caring then we can spend the other 364½ how we like.  I know that this is not the intention but I fear it is the reality.

Earth Day is popular with companies trying to improve their ‘green’ image, and it is here I have a big problem. I have no issue with companies trying to improve their green credentials, but improving their image and improving their credentials are not the same thing. How ‘green’ is a company who decides to spend Earth Day extoling the benefits of re-using cups at the coffee machine when the next day they send staff on a ‘training course’ that just happens to be in a hotel in Portugal? Who cares if you encourage everyone to print double-sided if you then require that 1,000-page file to be photocopied five times and then sent to offices all around the country (yes, I am drawing on past experience in these examples!).

I understand that Earth Day, and similar initiatives, try to encourage people to make small changes that are of little consequence in themselves but multiply over many people to make large differences. People are encouraged to turn off lights, the TV, their computer, and so on, when they’re not being used for long periods. The most commonly given reason for doing this is to ‘save you money’. After all, we live in a capitalistic society where money drives many of our decisions and if we can use money to drive lower energy consumption then everyone wins, surely?

Well, no. The problem comes from the rebound effect. If you save money on your heating bill most people don’t just say ‘yippee, I’ve saved money on my heating bill’, they say ‘yippee, I’ll put those savings into the holiday fund’ or similar. So the money saved on heating goes towards a flight to a tropical paradise where you stay in a five-star hotel for a week and lounge on the beach. This doesn’t exactly help the environment.

And this is where my biggest problem ultimately lies. No matter how hard we try to reduce our energy use, whether it’s through small behavioural changes or making things more energy efficient, the rebound effect will get us every time. I don’t know what the solution is but I think that this is something that really needs to be discussed publicly.

Sometimes the causes and effects of climate change can seem so overwhelming that people (myself included) want to give up, believing there’s nothing they can do. Unfortunately, there’s some truth in that. But one thing we can do is realise that it is overall effects that we need to consider, not individual ones. It’s not a very sexy message or one that is easy to sell, but unless it becomes the focus of the discussion then Earth Day is going to be nothing more than a wasted PR exercise. And that’s a real shame.


Sarah Hearne: hearnes[at]

Photo credit

Thunder lizards + methane = climate change

Mathematics is the language of science and when it comes to biology this is no exception. It’s only when you start researching for yourself that you realise how useful a skill it is. Consider, for example, the mathematical approach that Graeme Ruxton and collaborators bring to their research in ecology and evolution. Ruxton has addressed questions ranging from the foraging radius of vultures to a hypothesis proposing that sauropod dinosaurs produced enough methane, a la modern cows, to affect the climate of the time. The latter paper does seem to ask an intractable question on first inspection given that the animals have been extinct for at least 65 million years. So how do the authors even begin to tackle their question?

Mathematically of course. To begin, they estimate the population density of sauropods during the Jurassic Period from fossil data. Then they take a medium sized sauropod like Apatosaurus louise, which weighed around 20,000kg, as a representative animal. Finally they apply a relationship which gives an indication of methane production per animal, while being careful to note the relatively shorter Mesozoic day:

Methane (litres per day) = 0.18 (body mass in kg) 0.97

Multiplying it all out and the bottom line is that these beasts could put out 520 million tonnes of methane per year into the atmosphere. Incredibly, this is comparable to modern day emissions when the effects of this are apparent to all.The upshot the authors draw is that sauropods were drivers of climate change during the Mesozoic Era. There are some uncertainties in the paper to be sure. For one, the metabolism of dinosaurs is still an unknown and this has implications for their output. But the argument seems to be a sound one and this was all achieved with some fairly basic maths.


1. Ruxton, GD, Houston, DC (2002). Modelling the energy budget of a colonial bird of prey, the Ruppell’s griffon vulture, and consequences for its breeding ecology. African Journal of Ecology. 40 (3) p. 260–266.

2. Wilkinson DM, Nisbet EG, Ruxton GD (2012) Could methane produced by sauropod dinosaurs have helped drive Mesozoic climate warmth? Current Biology 22: R292-R293. DOI:


Adam Kane: kanead[at]

Photo credit

Todd Marshall