Science stories

Common Chords

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Have you heard birds singing today? You probably have, though you may not have even realized it. Even in crowded urban habitats, birds accompany our everyday lives with their songs, but we often are so used to them or so busy we don’t even hear them anymore. When you listen closely, you can recognize the unique voices of the blackbird, the great tit and the chaffinch, each with his own signature style (usually it is the males who sing). For scientists like me who study birdsong, having a visual representation of the sounds helps to better understand and quantify what the birds are actually doing when they are singing, and what this could reveal about them.  More...

How does satellite capture biodiversity?

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All of living organisms are brilliant creatures. No man can swim as fish, fly as bird, sense as bat. However, we as humans used our potential to engineer instruments that could combine skills evolved in nature. Satellites are one of the examples. With the distance of seven hundred kilometers above the earth surface, we can take pictures containing information that are exceeding any man vision. Through those images we can see further than any eagle, more precise than any mantel shrimp and perceive more colors behind blue than any butterfly and behind red than any snake. From those images with wide range of colors and an excellent coverage, we are able to derive the information about the earth surface that could be relevant to monitor natural environment. More...

Bird’s Eye View

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How do animals find their food? In the case of the Red Kite, a generalist predator and scavenger, it spends its days soaring overhead, searching for rodents, carrion, or even dinner scraps from compost heaps. In certain landscapes and seasons it will be easier to find food than others, resulting in established habitat preferences and seasonal migratory movements. For example, long grass or snow cover will make it more difficult to find natural prey, while anthropogenic (human-related) food sources might be more consistently available through time. What does this mean for a Red Kite? How does a Red Kite use information about food availability to make decisions about space use, both within seasons (territory establishment, hunting/scavenging), and between seasons (where to spend the winter months)? Come by this busk to learn more about Red Kite food preferences, habitat use, seasonal movement, and how they all interrelate! Finally, see how good your “Red Kite eyes” are, by searching for food items in a Red Kite’s habitat!"

No species is an island

turtle1_hansen_webjpgIsland ecology, the study of relationships between organisms and their environment on islands, seeks to understand the vital connections between plants and animals and the world around them.

Through my research, I hope to exemplify that the protection of species occurring on islands and the web of life in which they are part of, depend vitally on the protection of the place where they live – their habitat. For my PhD I am working on an island ecosystem, Aldabra Atoll, a UNESCO World Heritage Site home to the largest population of giant tortoises in the world and constituting important natural habitats for in-situ conservation of threatened biological diversity.  More...

Nature and people connected

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Let me tell you a story about the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Not so long ago, DRC was ruled by king Leopold II of Belgium, who had great dreams of making Belgium one of the main players at the world stage, alongside Great Britain and France. He wished to use the incredible natural richness of the DRC to generate income for the Belgian State and improve the lives of Belgian citizens. From 1890 to 1900 there was a major rubber boom all around the world, rubber prices were skyrocketing. To king Leopold II’s delight, he found the DRC to be full of rubber trees. To produce as much rubber as possible, he ordered citizens of the DRC to extract a fixed amount of rubber from the forest per week and pay this to the State. In the beginning this was easy, since the forest was packed with rubber trees. People could tend to their daily activities, such as managing their agricultural fields, while providing the demanded amount of rubber to the State. But this did not last long. With rubber prices continuing to rise, king Leopold II became greedier and rose rubber taxes further and further, demanding bigger and bigger efforts from the citizens of the DRC. At the same time, the rubber trees in the neighborhood of villages became completely exhausted, forcing people to walk further and further to gather the demanded amount of rubber. Finally, king Leopold II’s rubber regime resulted in one of the greatest common pool resource tragedies to date. Due to the increased demands and decreased rubber stocks in their vicinities, people did not have time to tend to their daily activities to provide food for their family, and eventually did not even have time to collect the amount of rubber that was required by the government. They were enslaved by the system, resulting in famine, disease and exhaustion, which ultimately caused the death of 7 million people and an almost complete loss of rubber profits. 

What can we learn from this story?

A world of colours

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Colours surround us. Everywhere in our daily life, meanings are often associated with colours. Yellow, serenity… Red, love, anger, passion… Green, hope, nature… White, peace… Could you now imagine a world in black and white? 

Some animals do and interpret the world with a shades-of-grey scale. Some others can perceive some colours. More surprisingly, others perceive black when you see red. 

What are colours? Why might the perception of colour differ? Which role do the colour play in ecosystem functioning? Why do their diversity is vital for the conservation of biodiversity?
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Happy Insects, Healthy Farm or  Is there a space for nature in agriculture?

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Humanity has a large impact on Earth. Agriculture is one of the major drivers of negative impacts, second only to fossil fuels and mineral extraction. In some way, we could say society started with agriculture and still today is the backbone of our subsistence. The farm is a unique socio-ecological system; fishermen don’t live in the middle of the sea, but farmers mostly live in their farms. In that way, many worlds coexist and collide in the farm: producers, consumers, farm or domestic animals, crop species, “weeds”, rodents, birds, water and nutrient cycles; the list is long. One of the main worlds in this system, are insects.  More...

What is ecological naturalness in landscape? 

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Humans have been modifying nature for centuries. As a result, beautiful places that we might consider “natural”, are actually the result of human interventions. Obvious examples of man-made landscapes can be a farm, a city or gardens. But sometimes it is hard to realize when something is natural or artificial: for example, when a forest is native, grown for forestry or part of a restoration program. Of course there are different levels of intervention, from landscapes that have been completely designed and managed to those where only side effects of civilization have reached, usually called semi-natural. In fact, it is considered that no landscape has been left in its natural state, but all have different degrees of “naturalness”, which is the way we perceive landscapes as being natural or man-made. Ecological naturalness, refers to the ecological aspects of our interventions in nature.  
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Wonderful world of lupins

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We classify things on a regular basis, we do it constantly and unconsciously; it is a way that allows our brains to understand the surroundings and how to interact with it. Even from our very beginnings as humans we needed to put in categories the resources that we had available in order to survive, for example, we learned to identify certain plants as edible and differentiate them from others that were toxic. This practice of classifying things is called taxonomy. Why is it important? Well, in order to understand how biodiversity came about and what can we do to protect it we need to know first what we have, and we know it in part thank to the work of taxonomists. They are the ones that study a group of organisms in depth and set the criteria for their differentiation. Despite being a central field in Biology, it seems that Taxonomy has lost popularity over the years, and taxonomists have become themselves an “endangered species”.  More... 

Story of the most expensive caterpillar in the world

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Caterpillar fungus formally known as Ophiocordyceps sinensis, is a fungus endemic to the alpine area in Tibetan plateau and surrounding Himalayas mountain region. It is also known as yartsa gunbu in Tibetan and dongchong xiacao in Chinese, which literally translated as 'summer grass-winter worm'. The fungus infects larvae of the ghost moths (Thitarodes), which live underground feeding on plant roots. When larvae shed their skins in the late summer, they get exposed to fungus in soil and get infected. The infected larvae usually stay underground with head facing upwards. During winter the fungus spreads though caterpillar’s body and slowly kills it, leaving it looking as a mummy. In the spring, the fungus emerges from the soil still connected to the mummified caterpillar. During mid-May to late June, rural people in the Tibetan plateau and sounding Himalayas region, collect the caterpillar fungus. Uncollected yartsa gunbu provide spores that will infect new ghost moth larvae.
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Deforestation, palm oil and organgutans

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Forest clearing in the Southeast Asian islands of Malaysia and Indonesia is removing the only Orangutan habitat in the world. In the last 20 years, over 3.5 million hectares of Indonesian and Malaysian forest have been destroyed to make way for palm oil. The establishment of oil palm plantations is the leading cause of rainforest destruction and therefore a major contributor to orangutan extinction, 80% of orangutan habitat has disappeared in the last 20 years. The orangutans have little to eat in these areas which leads to conflicts between humans and orangutans. 

Many products found in supermarkets today contain palm oil and palm kernel oil including cosmetics and toiletries such as soaps, shampoos, creams and shower gels.

What can you do?

Use your voice by:

  • informing yourself about the many names given to palm oil,
  • buying products that are palm oil free

 

How to stay hidden or  the importance of genetic diversity

Biston_betulariajpgThe peppered moth (aka Biston betularia) is an inconspicuous little insect that cryptically camouflages against the bark of birch trees during the day. There, it tries to stay out of sight of its many predators, like red breasts and black birds. The better an individual matches the background of the birch’s bark, the more likely it is to survive. Until fairly recently, the light colored wing patterns of most individuals of this species did exactly that: they enabled a moth to blend in and stay hidden. More...

Global threats and biodiversity

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Climate change, land-use change, pollution, exploitation of natural resources, and invasive species are transforming life on Earth as fast as never before in Earth's history. The exploration and understanding of biodiversity is therefore more important than ever. 

These drivers of global changes, known as the “big five”, do not affect every species or an ecosystem in every region in the same way. To determine how and why does for example pollution impact a dragonfly or invasive species impact silver birch forests, we need to ask ourselves what does a particular species/ecosystem need for survival.  More...

Sounds under water                                                                                       

Clown_fish_in_the_Andaman_Coral_ReefjpgDid you know that fish make sounds? Not all, but many do. To communicate, they grunt, they moan, they squeak, they groan, they click. But they’re not the only living organisms to make sound at sea: marine mammals also do, of course, and with a good ear you could also catch snapping shrimps or munching urchins. That is, if there’s no motorboat passing by… Come to this busk to discover the symphony of biodiversity at sea and even join the harmony! Or if you really must, stay in your armchair and visit: https://dosits.org/galleries/audio-gallery/