In the years to come, 140 ecologists working in Ireland will look back with fond memories of being part of the inaugural meeting of the Irish Ecological Association (24th-26th November). We will remember hard-hitting plenaries, compelling oral presentations, data-rich posters, influential workshops and the formation of the IEA’s first committee. The lively social events might be harder for some of us to remember…
There could not have been a more fitting way to open the conference than the plenary seminar from Professor Ian Montgomery (QUB) on Thursday night. Within the hour, he managed to given an incredibly detailed summary of the natural history of Ireland, showing how Ireland had been an island for 16,000 years and presenting evidence that human occupation dated back 13,000 years. Ian stepped us through successive mammal invasions, classifying them as true ‘natives’ and more recent ‘invasives’. His seminar was open to the public and the audience included local farmers with strong concerns about the impacts of invasive mammals on their stock.
We were welcomed the following morning with an energetic plenary from Professor Jane Memmott (U Bristol), covering her strikingly diverse career. She took us on a journey from life as a medical entomologist, to tropical ecologist living in a Costa Rican jungle tent, to invasion biologist in the land of invasives – New Zealand, to her more recent work on biodiversity in urban and farmland systems. Quantitative food webs were the central theme. Using both simple and complex food webs, based on enormous data sets, Jane clearly showed that we only see the full story about ecosystem dynamics by examining links between trophic levels. Continue reading “Ecology & Science in Ireland: the inaugural meeting of the Irish Ecological Association”
When attempting to conserve a rare animal population sometimes every individual counts. Conservationists regularly go the extra mile to protect their study species. The conservation efforts implemented for the Little Tern (Sternula albifrons) in Britain and Ireland demonstrate the success these efforts can have. This species nests on shingle beaches and had experienced catastrophic population declines due to increasing development and use of beaches by people. Little Tern adults are very vulnerable to disturbance and their eggs are particularly vulnerable to walker’s boots! Thankfully a network of wardened colonies, run by a mixture of conservation organisations and enthusiastic volunteer groups, succeeded in stabilising this species’ population.
However the Little Tern has lost much of its former range and is increasingly dependent on wardened colonies for their continued existence on these islands . Being concentrated in a densely populated protected areas has made them acutely vulnerable to predators. This has led wardens at the nationally important colony at Kilcoole in Co. Wicklow to adopt a practice of fostering Little Tern eggs abandoned after a depredation event in an attempt to maximise colony productivity, outlined in our recent paper in the latest issue of Irish Birds.
As Little Tern colonies are often squeezed into small protected areas this makes them a beacon to hungry predators. Corvids (members of the crow family), can be a danger to colonies. They are vigorously mobbed by the terns, but sometimes manage to slip through the defences. It was noticed that corvids often only managed to take one egg from a nest, perhaps because the parents were then more vigilant. However within a day of having an egg taken, the parents abandoned the remaining eggs in every case observed. This may have been due to anticipation of the predator’s return (Little Terns depend upon their egg’s camouflage to protect their nest), or in an attempt to re-lay a full clutch. However clutches laid later in the season often have poorer survival rates .
To maximise colony productivity, Kilcoole wardens fostered abandoned eggs abandoned after depredation events to other nests on the same incubation schedule when the colony experienced corvid depredation in 2011 and 2014. Nests were confirmed abandoned after the parent’s failed to return to incubate for several hours and the eggs went cold. The parents in recipient nests always accepted the foster eggs, apparently not questioning why they had gained an extra egg! Where possible eggs were fostered to other nests which had experienced partial depredation but had not yet been abandoned, replacing the eggs lost. Having a full clutch again seemed to stop the parents abandoning the nest. Fostering eggs resulted in the fledging of an additional 5 Little Tern chicks, a small but worthwhile number given the precarious status of the Irish populations.
The fact that the fostered eggs remained viable despite hours without incubation in cold conditions further demonstrate the extraordinary robustness of seabird eggs. In a previous paper we wrote about how Little Terns recollected eggs which have been washed out by tides and moved them into new nests. Many of these eggs hatched successfully even after hours without incubation, exposure to freezing seawater and potential mechanical damage from being moved.
This robustness can prove a boon for conservationists working with endangered species. In a recent case an egg abandoned by an inexperienced pair of Chatham Island Tāikos (Pterodroma magenta) was successfully fostered to another pair after being abandoned for 10 days. Even after all this time without incubation a healthy chick was hatched, an important victory as only 150 of these birds are left in the world, showing the potential value of egg fostering.
While the aspiration must always be for animal populations to be self-sustaining, in many cases hands on conservation measures are necessary to ensure a population’s survival. In order to ensure the continued survival of the Little Tern in Britain and Ireland wardened colonies are still necessary, at least until they experience a full tern around in fortunes.
Author: Darren O’Connell
Photo credits: Little Terns – Andrew Power and Peter Cutler. Chatham Island Taiko Chick – Dave Boyle.
A special thanks to all my co-workers on the Kilcoole Little Tern project, the volunteers who make the project tick and project manager Dr Stephen Newton of BirdWatch Ireland.
 Balmer, D., Gillings, S., Caffrey, B., Swann, B., Downie, I. and Fuller, R. (2013) Bird Atlas 2007-11: the breeding and wintering birds of Britain and Ireland. HarperCollins, UK.
 Nager, R.G., Monaghan, P. and Houston, D.C. 2000. Within-clutch trade-offs between the number and quality of eggs: experimental manipulations in gulls. Ecology 81: 1339-1350. DOI: 10.1890/0012-9658(2000)081[1339:WCTOBT]2.0.CO;2
First in a series of posts on life after an undergraduate degree, Alison Boyce gives an account of the life of a scientific technician.
Science, engineering, and computing departments in universities employ technicians. Anyone working or studying in these areas will have dealt with a technician at some point but most will be unaware of a technician’s route into the position and their full role in education and research.
Technical posts are varied e.g. laboratory, workshop, computer. Funding for technical support is afforded by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) to provide assistance in undergraduate teaching. This is the primary role of technical officers (TOs) after which the Head of Discipline or Chief Technical Officer (CTO) decide further duties.
Until the early 1990s individuals joined the university as trainee technicians. Many came through the ranks starting as laboratory attendants, a position which still exists. Trainee technicians would spend one day a week over four years working towards a City and Guilds’ qualification. At this time the occupation was mostly hands on with little theoretical work. Many started young by today’s standards (starting at 14 years old was not uncommon), and they continued to study well past diploma level. Changing the nature of the role so much that nowadays almost all technical officers have primary degrees and come with a more academic view of the position.
In 2008, it was agreed that incoming technical officers must hold at least a primary degree in order to work at Trinity College Dublin. Those looking for promotion to Senior TO would require a Master’s and to CTO, a PhD. Those already in the system would not be penalised, local knowledge and experience are recognised equivalents and rightly so. This agreement gave rise to the job title changing from technician to technical officer reflecting the removal of the apprenticeship system. Many still use the old name but it doesn’t cause offence. These qualifications represent minimum requirements. TOs constantly train, learning new technologies and procedures. It is difficult to resist the temptation of further study when you work in an educational environment.
From graduate to TO
Gaining experience in medical, industrial, or other educational laboratories is most important. Further study in areas general to laboratory work are also advantageous e.g. first aid, web design, or statistics. Sometimes researchers move into a technical role temporarily and find they enjoy it so stay on. Applying to a discipline with some relationship to your qualifications makes sense; a physicist may not enjoy working in a biological lab. Having come though the university system many graduates would be familiar with teaching laboratories and their departments. Seeing a place for yourself in the future of a discipline is vital for career progression as it is seldom you will see a TO moving from one department to another. It should be possible to adapt the role to your skills or study to meet those required for promotion.
Day to day
All labs/disciplines differ but certain core responsibilities fall to the technical staff at some point. Running practicals is the biggest responsibility during term time with design and development out of term. Some departments in science and engineering have lab and field based classes. Various modules require field sampling in preparation for the practical. Getting out on the road can be very satisfying even if you are at the mercy of nature!
If you consider what it takes to run a home you’ll have an idea of what a TO does to maintain a lab/department. Ordering supplies and equipment. When something breaks, repair it or have it mended in a cost effective way. Logging, maintaining and installing equipment, health and safety information and implementation, chemical stock control, running outreach programmes, planning and managing building refurbishment, organising social events, updating the discipline’s web pages, assisting undergraduate student projects and much more.
These are just the basic duties and do not describe the essence of technical work at university level. Firstly it is to guide, instruct, and assist in scientific matters. An analytical and practical mind is necessary. You must have a willingness to facilitate the design and execution of projects in teaching and research. If you are eager to help and learn, it’s the perfect job for you. The information base for many materials and methods is the technical staff. Local knowledge and an ability work in consultation with other departments is often key to completing a project. Ideally, when a researcher leaves the university, their skills should pass to a TO keeping those abilities in-house. Imparting them to the next generation.
If you’re very lucky, you’ll be in a discipline that encourages you to take part in research and further study. It’s wise to check where a discipline or school stands before considering work in that area. Career opportunities open up in such disciplines. CTO Specialist is a promotion given to someone with expertise of a specialist nature e.g. IT, histology. Experimental Officer is a post created to further research in a discipline and often requires some teaching.
Overall, the position is what you make of it. If you strive to improve and adapt, you’ll find it immensely rewarding. Many practical classes repeat annually but on a daily basis you could be doing anything, anywhere. Being a technical officer is stimulating and constantly changing, keeping your brain and body active. You won’t be sitting for too long when you’re surrounded by young adults in need of advice and equipment. The relationship is symbiotic, your knowledge and their enthusiasm eventually gets any problem sorted.
Author: Alison Boyce, a.boyce[at]tcd[dot]ie
Alison Boyce has worked as a technical officer at Trinity College Dublin for over 20 years. In that time, she has acted as a master-puppeteer in seeing countless undergraduate projects through to completion. Her in-depth knowledge of technical, theoretical, and practical aspects of natural sciences has made her one of the most influential figures in the history of this department.
The editorial team thanks her for taking the time to write this piece.
For those of us with an interest in the natural world, Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) are a staple of urban wildlife in Dublin, present in many parks and along both canals. However, it has been 25 years since there has been any real assessment of the state of the Mute Swan population in the Dublin region (1). This has been a period of immense change in the urban landscape.
This summer, the Irish Midlands Ringing Group (IMRG) started a monitoring project to assess the state of the Mute Swan population in the Dublin region and to better understand their population dynamics, coordinated by Graham Prole of the IMRG https://irishmidlandsringing.wordpress.com/2015/10/05/mute-swan-colour-ringing/. The first stage of the project was a comprehensive survey of breeding by swans in the Dublin region. This revealed high nest occupancy rates, with 42 pairs successfully producing cygnets, an increase on the last survey 25 years ago. The monitoring of these breeding attempts is ongoing, with 20 pairs still with cygnets. The new habitat provided by the artificial lakes constructed in parks in the Dublin suburbs (such as Tymon Park in Tallaght), seems to have been a significant boon to the swan population. Breeding success was particularly high in these parks, likely helped by members of the public regularly feeding the swans in these areas.
The results of the swan breeding survey have raised more questions. While breeding success seems to be high, bachelor herds (groups of juveniles who have been forced out by their parents and adult birds who have yet to win a territory) are much reduced in traditional locations. To gain a better understanding of the population dynamics and movements of the Dublin region swan population, the IMRG has commenced a colour ringing scheme. The colour rings are yellow darvic rings with a unique inscription in black letters fitted to the swan’s leg.
Catching the swans for ringing is greatly aided by the fact that many of them are used to being fed bread by the public, but it can still be a daunting task to the uninitiated. Mute Swans are powerful birds, with a reputation for being aggressive (a reputation which some individuals certainly live up to!). They are caught by hand when they come to feed on bread, taking care to prevent them from flapping and straining their wings. The ring is quickly attached and they are released back onto their patch. The swans quickly recover and don’t seem to hold any grudge, as ringed individuals often return to take bread from the team which ringed them!
To date, over 60 swans have been colour ringed. Re-sightings of these rings allow the lives of individual swans to be followed without any further disturbance. Of particular interest is the dispersal of juvenile swans and the recruitment of bachelor birds into the breeding population. This project is already beginning to generate data as the first juveniles begin to disperse to join bachelor herds, with ringed juveniles moving from Tallaght to the Grand Canal, Swords estuary and Bray Harbour. The furthest dispersal distance so far has been 18km. The colour rings are large enough to be easily read by members of the public, promoting community engagement with the project. Any re-sightings would be greatly appreciated and can be sent to email@example.com.
A special thanks to Graham Prole for coordinating this project, to all IMRG members who helped at the catches and to South Dublin and Kildare County Councils who provided permission and financial support. This work was carried out under licence from the National Parks and Wildlife Service and British Trust for Ornithology.
Collins, R. and Whelan J. (1994) Movements in an Irish Mute Swan Cygnus olor Ringing and Migration. 15: 40-19. doi: 10.1080/03078698.1994.9674070
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.
One of the best things about my PhD has got to be the fieldwork. My project involves analysing the GPS data of a population of badgers to find out where they forage, how big their territories are, who lives with whom and how they disperse. This means putting GPS collars on them twice a year. Badgers have a bit of a bad rep, one they really don’t deserve. Contrary to popular opinion they are not vicious beasts that, once clamped on to your foot, won’t let go until they hear the bones crack (people say this to me a lot). They are in fact quite timid and very cute with it!
I work with the NPWS and DAFM vets to trap and process the badgers. We set cages baited with yummy peanuts each night close to sett entrances and near regularly used latrines. Very early the next morning we go and check our haul. I love the anticipation of approaching the cage to see if we have a badger and who it might be. Each badger has its own distinct personality. Kenny will invariably be feigning sleep. Muffin huffs, puffs and chuffs a bit. Billy (RIP L) loved his peanuts and could be counted on to be in a trap most mornings, whereas Louis has proved to be a bit of an escape artist. Boru is the most chilled-out dude and saunters rather than runs out of the cage when we release him. We approach quietly because whether a badger is quiet or growling, it is afraid (except maybe Boru), and we want to minimise their stress as much as possible. Invariably even the feistiest badger shuts-down and plays dead, either covering its eyes with its forepaws or tucking its head under its belly. It’s just like kids thinking that if they can see you, you can’t see them. So cute! But every now and then a tremor of fear passes through their bodies. So quietly does it.
Teresa, my vet colleague, goes in to anaesthetise the badger so we can fit the collar and do all the other bits and piece we need to do. When first caught a badger gets weighed, has blood samples and pharyngeal swabs to test for TB, is given a BCG vaccine to provide immunity and/or mitigate against TB infection and is given a general health check. We take a tissue sample for genetic analysis. We take photos of the teeth to estimate age. We check general body condition, remove fleas, treat any wounds and give antibiotics if necessary. New individuals get a microchip (and a nickname!) so we can ID it in future and I tattoo the last four digits of this number on its belly – which is a pretty awesome job. I’m a badger tattoo artist! The tattoo allows anyone else who should come across the animals (usually after a road traffic accident) know that the badger is special, and we can hopefully have it tested for TB status post-mortem. Finally the collar is fitted and the badger is placed in a “recovery box” to which allows it to come around in peace and return to the sett in its own time. If it’s a retrap with a good collar, we simply let the badger go. That night the collar begins transmitting the badger’s position, allowing us to build a picture of its movement patterns in fantastic detail. I now have over 50,000 GPS data points available for further analysis (but that’s a whole other blog post/dissertation).
Fieldwork also involves retrieving lost collars which can be tedious, locating dead badgers which is sad (it is hard not to get attached to your research subjects), checking fields for foraging signs and looking for new setts & latrines which is always enjoyable. I never thought I’d be so excited about faeces…I’ve had to stop sharing photos on Facebook or risk being defriended.
Badgers really are beautiful animals – they have a distinct “badgery” smell, wonderfully powerful forelimbs with massive claws for digging setts and rooting for food. Their distinctive facial mask is thought to have evolved as warning colouration to would-be predators (although there are no natural predators in Ireland, bar man). Their bodies are low-slung but they can move with incredible speed when they want to. Being nocturnal and living in underground setts they do have small eyes, and their large noses demonstrate that scent is their most important sense. In fact, one of our badgers, Fern, is completely blind but continues to do very well for herself, being the heaviest individual we trapped last autumn. Fatty pants! It is a real delight to be able to work with these animals, seeing them in the kind of detail that most people never do, and to be able to dispel the myth of an aggressive, vicious beast. Some are even TV stars. Keep an eye out for the upcoming season of Living The Wildlife on RTE which tells the story of our badgers.
In 2010 I graduated from the Department of Zoology in Trinity College Dublin. I spent the next year travelling and completing any wildlife related internship or voluntary position I could get my hands on. I soon faced a dilemma; should I follow in the footsteps of my friends in academia and find a PhD or should I keep searching for a conservation job? I really didn’t know if academia was for me but I knew it would be a great advantage if I wanted to make any kind of an impact in the conservation world. I didn’t really want to do a taught Masters, I had enough of exams and I felt I needed to get a bigger more meaningful project under my belt. A Research Masters proved to be exactly what I was looking for. I could sample postgraduate life without having to commit for four years but at the same time I knew I would have enough time to do something of consequence. I shopped around and eventually the idea of doing a Masters in Nottingham started to appeal to me (aided in no small way by the fact my girlfriend had decided to do a Masters there!).
I decided to meet up with my potential supervisors in Nottingham to see what sort of projects they had in mind. They had a plethora of ideas and were determined to find a project that suited my interests and abilities. All their conservation work takes place in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt and the University of Nottingham has a long established research history with the Sinai. Francis Gilbert (one of my potential supervisors) has fallen in love with the Sinai and has spent over 25 years researching there. His obvious passion and enthusiasm for Sinai was one of the major reasons I eventually chose this Masters. We talked through a variety of ideas but it eventually boiled down to one exciting project. It was proposed that I could carry out the first ever study of an extremely rare endemic butterfly found only around the mountains of the Saint Katherine Protectorate – the Sinai Hairstreak Satyrium jebelia. The butterfly was discovered in 1974 and other than a basic description there was next to nothing known about it. YES PLEASE. Ultimately the chance to carry out some old fashioned, pioneering Zoological research was too juicy to pass up! It also appealed to my dormant inner Lepidopterist (I kept butterfly record books with grid references when I was 11 years old) so that made the decision that little bit easier!
I accepted the Masters and started work in Nottingham in January. We had a vague idea of the flight season of the butterfly and to err on the side of caution (and to spend more time in Egypt!) we booked flights for a whopper four month field season in Egypt. I was insistent that I was there before the butterfly emerged right up to the bitter end. I was given a desk and a laptop and lumped in with other Masters and PhD students, which was great. There was no real differentiation between Masters and PhD students and it gave me a real taste for PhD life. My flight out was not until mid-April so I had considerable amount of time to do some preliminary research. This was a little frustrating because we had no idea what to expect and what I would be doing (a difficulty many field researchers and undergraduate dissertation students know too well). I had to be prepared for any eventuality and the thought occurred to me that this species could be extinct! My priority was to fully map its distribution and get the first ever population estimate for the species, absolutely essential information in wildlife conservation. It would also be impossible not to pick up some other useful information on the way. I researched everything from phylogeny to the best kinds of butterfly nets. The genus this butterfly belongs to is typically found in temperate regions of Europe and North America so why is it found in Egypt much further south than its cousins? The Sinai Peninsula and Egypt were once much cooler and had a much more European climate. Sinai Hairstreaks were probably much more widespread in the past but as the region became warmer the species started to die out. Butterflies are reliant on the distribution of their larval foodplant (what their caterpillars feed on) and it is likely that the Sinai Hairstreaks larval foodplant – Sinai Buckthorn Rhamnus dispermus – could not survive the extreme heat. The only way they could survive was to either move north to cooler climates or to move up in altitude where the environment is much cooler. The Saint Katherine Protectorate boasts the highest mountains in Egypt and has the coolest temperatures, making it a biodiversity hotspot and the last remaining home of the Sinai Hairstreak. I continued to work hard but it did become tedious (I did sneak off more than once to birdwatch in Nottingham…..they have Woodpeckers!) and spent a lot of time reading a PhD thesis by Mike James. He carried out the first ever study of another Sinai endemic butterfly – the Sinai Baton Blue. His thesis was the bible as far as I was concerned and a real inspiration. In one field season he carried out a 97 consecutive day Mark-Release Recapture experiment, legendary!
Eventually the time came where I had to fly to Sinai and I didn’t feel so prepared then! Being a pale Irish person with a ginger beard I was a little nervous about the hot Egyptian sun; a gallon of Factor 50 was packed. I flew to Sharm El-Sheikh airport at the southern tip of Sinai (a popular resort town for sun seekers) and was told a Bedouin from St Katherine was going to pick me up. The word Bedouin is generally used to describe Arabic tribes of a nomadic lifestyle that live throughout North Africa and the Middle East. However, the Bedouin in St Katherine live a more settled lifestyle as they take advantage of the tourism to Mount Sinai (where Moses is said to have read the Ten Commandments) and the Monastery of Saint Katherine. They belong to the Jebelia tribe and the Sinai Hairstreak is named after them – Satyrium jebelia. Eventually my driver showed up and, after a detour or two, (he turned a three hour drive into a six hour drive) we arrived at Fox Camp, lying at the foot of Mount Sinai. I was greeted by some familiar faces because there was a team of different Nottingham researchers there looking at everything from hyenas and wolves to the birds and bees (literally). I was invited to join my fellow researchers and some locals by the fire in the Bedouin tent. This would become a daily routine, talking to my Nottingham friends, the locals and strange tourists over Bedouin tea (ingredients: a small amount of water and black tea with a kilo of sugar).
The first week or so was the acclimatisation period, getting used to the sun and helping some of the other researchers (catching Black-crowned Wheatears with Luke and setting up camera traps for carnivores with Lisa). The first thing I wanted to do was to map all the hostplants, Sinai Buckthorn (a rare and endemic species in its own right) before the butterfly was due to emerge. If I could find the hostplants I could find the butterflies. This proved a little more difficult than I originally thought. I had to rely on local knowledge to find these plants and the Sinai Buckthorn has no real value to the Bedouin so many people don’t know what it is. They often confused it with the similar looking (and more common) Sinai Hawthorn. This lead to being sent on more than one wild goose chase. It is illegal to walk the mountains in the Sinai without taking a local guide with you. This also proved a bit of a nightmare at the start as the first guide I was given was 14 years old and didn’t speak English. I didn’t care too much that he didn’t speak English (it’s his country) but he just didn’t understand what he was supposed to be doing, through no real fault of his own. He would take me to the top of mountain and treated me like a tourist and not a scientist…..so I paid him and sacked him! Eventually I settled on my guide – Suileman Abusada- who spoke English. Unfortunately he didn’t really know anything about the plant but pretended he did. He was so eager to secure my services that he gave me rugs and gifts after our first walk. While he didn’t know much about the hostplant he did know the area very well, was a good cook and was willing to spend days on end in the mountains with me while I looked for the plants. I used a GPS to mark the location of the Buckthorn and started the mapping process. Luckily there was one Bedouin who knew exactly what I was looking for – Nasr Mansour. Nasr exuded coolness (his name means eagle and he has a motorbike) and knew everything there is to know about the flora and fauna of St Katherine. He was already a guide for someone else but I did manage to get him to bring me to some locations and educate Suleiman about what I was looking for.
The next few weeks followed the same pattern, long day trips to Wadis (valleys) around the protectorate looking for this shrub and enjoying the spectacular scenery of the region. The Sinai Buckthorn has a nasty habit of being found in remote areas and along steep rocky slopes. On the 10th of May the project really took off, I was climbing up the side of a particularly tedious hill to check out what I expected were two Sinai Buckthorn. The Buckthorn was usually found in relatively high numbers so one or two trees were hardly anything to write home about. I was wrong; I saw the butterfly for the first time (several weeks before they were due to emerge). It was such a relief to the see the species I had been studying for the past four months for the first time. First off I photographed the butterfly (probably the 3rd known photograph for this species!) and I then proceeded to watch them, trying to get familiar with their behaviour. I knew I had an awkward species on my hands as they were quick and would often disappear out of sight chasing after other species of butterfly or just vanishing altogether. Many arid species (such as the Sinai Baton Blue) rarely move more than a few metres but it was immediately clear that the Sinai Hairstreak was a strong flier. I started to practice catching them which was made all the more awkward because the Sinai Buckthorn is covered in thorns, fixing my net was a weekly occurrence. By that time I was fairly satisfied that I had mapped all the hostplants in the region and I knew that it was time to start to try and estimate the population. I found six large sites containing Sinai Buckthorn and a couple of sites with one or two hostplants. I was confident the butterfly would be present in the larger sites despite that it had only been known to occur in two locations. My assumptions were correct and each of the six sites were teaming with butterflies! Hunting season was open!
I wanted to have a reasonably good population estimate so I decided to visit each site for five consecutive days to carry out a Mark-Recapture-Release experiment. I would spend eight hours each day (8:00 – 16:00) for five days catching butterflies. This sounds easy but this was (obviously) the hottest part of the day and the trees could be scattered along various different steep slopes. More often than not I was also competing against a dodgy stomach, watch out for the salad! Even the local Bedouin don’t like being out in the heat of the day, Suleiman rarely helped and spent most days sleeping in the shade! He was good craic and cooked so no problems there. The sites were quite remote so I would camp for the five days with Suleiman. We would bring a camel, Abdul, with us to carry our food and water. Each butterfly captured was given an individual mark with a felt-tip pen through the net and released as quickly as possible. The location, behaviour and time were recorded for each capture or subsequent recapture. By looking at the proportion of marked and unmarked individuals we can estimate the population size using Eberhardt’s geometric model. Maps were created using Google Earth showing the movements of captured Sinai Hairstreaks, the distribution of Sinai Buckthorn and the Sinai Hairstreak. I used this method on all the sites except for one (the Wadi Ahmar region) because of the apparent high population of Sinai Hairstreaks there. For this site I visited once marking as many butterflies as I could and then returned five days later to count the proportion of marked and unmarked individuals. The population size was estimated using the Lincoln index. Carrying out population estimates at each site took a good chunk of time and I was afraid the flight season would end while I was still doing it. As I result I worked non-stop during this time which was pretty intense but very exciting. I took notes on everything I could from predators to foodplants while I was catching the butterflies. I also decided to assess the habitat and larval foodplant requirements by recording 11 different features from the height and width to the slope and aspect of every single Sinai Buckthorn, 553 in total. This was much less enjoyable and much more labour intensive than catching butterflies!
It wasn’t long until August came around and the butterflies were completely gone by the time I left. The heat in August was blistering and I was ready to leave after four long months. I returned to Nottingham with a mountain of data and a decent tan. I effectively became a hermit (tan receded quickly) for the next couple of months writing as much as I could without the distraction of exams or lab work. I estimated the total world population of Sinai Hairstreaks to be 1,010 individuals (less than Snow Leopard and Giant Panda). This is very low but unlike many endangered species the Sinai Hairstreak has a naturally small population size. As I mentioned before the Sinai Hairstreak is a relict species that has become isolated on a mountain-top island to avoid the higher temperatures of lowland Egypt. The good news is the Sinai Hairstreak is not under direct threat from people; the foodplant is not used by the locals (they harvest the foodplant of the Sinai Baton Blue) or grazed heavily and the habitat is not being destroyed by human development. I was also keen to establish what population structure the Sinai Hairstreak has. Basing a conservation strategy on the wrong population structure has proved costly in the past. We can do this by looking at the proximity of sites and the dispersal ability of the butterfly. This definitely needs more research but we now know the Sinai Hairstreak is a good flier (I had one beast fly a kilometre in a day). The Sinai Hairstreak may exist as a metapopulation or a panmictic population. It certainly appears to be in a better position than the Sinai Baton Blue. If the Sinai Baton Blue becomes locally extinct in one patch of suitable habitat it is likely that patch will never be recolonized again due to its extremely poor dispersal ability. I also found an individual Sinai Hairstreak that was 25 days old (very good for a butterfly) which is another indication of how robust it can be. The bad news; the only serious threat that the Sinai Hairstreak is under is global warming, if current climate-change predictions are correct the habitat may become unsuitable and there may be no way for the Sinai Hairstreak to survive. They have already reached the top of Egypt’s highest mountain and have literally nowhere left to go to escape the heat.
My work in Sinai was recently published in the journal of Insect Conservation. After I finished my Masters I was invited to attend an IUCN Red List Assessment Workshop on Mediterranean Butterflies in Malaga as an expert in Egyptian butterflies (a very generous statement!) and I was involved directly in the creation of a new regional Red List for Mediterranean butterflies. The information I collected was used to have the Sinai Hairstreak red listed for the first time as Vulnerable. Getting a species on the Red List is a necessary first step in highlighting the conservation concern of a species and I was delighted to get the ball rolling for the Sinai Hairstreak. To sum things up I was thrilled to be able to shed some light on an unstudied species and even more delighted that my research could actually prove useful! It’s hard to believe that it all happened in a single year.
More photos of the wildlife and scenery of the Sinai can be found here.
So, it’s that time of year again; as the cold, damp, dark, weather sets in we look to warmer climes for escape and entertainment. So; Take 26 people, from all walks of life, throw them together in a tropical paradise to camp with bugs, beasts and cold-water showers for 10 days and watch the dynamics and lessons unfold….
Ok so we’re not exactly celebrities, we didn’t skydive into the savanna, or have Ant and Dec provide a narration to our every move, or eat blended kangaroo testicles (though incidentally on the same trip last year I did try ox testicles!), but we were a mixed group, many of whom were experiencing the tropics for the first time, and out of the luxury of their usual lives, forced to live together in tents for 10 days.
On our field course of Tropical Ecology in Kenya with our final year undergraduate students, I was struck once again by the sense of camaraderie and togetherness that the experience brought to us all. Nothing like scanning each other for ticks to build trust! There is no comparison to learning through experience and that is exactly what we spent the week doing; from buffalo management and human wildlife conflict, to climate change and community development projects. I think that we are lucky in the field of ecology for these sorts of opportunities to present themselves that many other fields may not have; the chance to go out and live and experience our science. I think it is really important for humanizing the science too- being able to interact and see how others problem solve under pressure or with limited resources; hard to gain in a one hour lecture twice a week or the odd practical.
We did have a few “Bushtucker” trials of our own though:
Sk-Hipp to the Loo
Dodge the giant grazing hippos in the dark to reach the bathroom without scaring them into crushing your campmate
The Hike of Hell
Walk for 3 hours in the grueling heat of the Equatorial midday sun with no shade and an Irish complexion, the trail littered with dead flamingoes.
Mystery Meat Curry
Might be goat, might be donkey; If you don’t think about it it’s fine!
Gorge-ous day for a climb
Creep along the perilous algal covered gorge slopes to reach the other side without falling to your death (or at least a lot of bruises)
What’s that bite?
It went from red bubble to blackish- green triangle: Hospital or Savlon?
Steer your overloaded minivan at high speed around the giant potholes without ending up in a ditch.
Prickly Plant Polka
Rash or puncture? Only one way to find out; walk through the forest in shorts and count the war wounds… And don’t lick the prickly pear en route
Try to pack a tent at 6am without disturbing the ants nest underneath
The most frightening of all; stand up in front of your campmates to present an original research project idea for funding…
At least I can say that the public wasn’t voting people off the trip!
Last month I spent a month in Mbuluzi Game Reserve in Swaziland attempting to build a walk-in trap that will allow me to capture vultures. I want to be able to tag the birds with GPS trackers and ask a host of interesting questions from which a flood of Nature papers will follow.
We’ll have to wait for the vultures to get habituated to the area before adding the front to the trap. Once this happens we can proceed. So this is a ‘to be continued’…
My PhD involves studying the foraging behaviour of vultures. So far I’ve done theoretical work and also had the luck to get some second hand empirical data. But I’d like to be able to get some field data first hand. To that end I’m setting off to Swaziland on Saturday with the intention of building a vulture restaurant and a walk-in trap. The first item takes a little explaining. Vultures are carrion feeders, which means their food source is unpredictable, the bird never knows when the next wildebeest is going to drop dead. So they’re quite sensitive to declines in food availability. But a vulture restaurant is a conservation tool that acts as a supplementary feeding station for the birds. The people organizing the restaurant can deposit carrion at the site thereby providing an extra food supply for the vultures. This is done to keep the birds within an area, to feed them during times of food scarcity or in my case to aid in their capture.
Alongside the restaurant we’re going to build a walk-in trap, a simple structure that the birds walk into before we close the door behind them and have a PhD’s worth of data points. Well, it’s not quite that easy. I want to be able to find out to where these birds are foraging at a high temporal resolution so we will be putting GPS tags on the vultures once we capture them. This means some poor soul will be entering the trap and extracting the birds one by one, each animal getting tagged before being released back into the wild. I should stress this has been done before on many occasions and the birds are all freed within minutes without any ill effects.
So far a lot of research done in this area provides us with broad-scale movement patterns. With my finer scale data I’ll hopefully be able to pick out some quite specific aspects of vulture foraging behaviour. Wish me luck!