Tag Archives: fieldwork

Of otters and scurvygrass

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A dense patch of scurvygrass (Cochlearia officinalis agg.) in an area much frequented by otters based on the clear trails, spraint and crushed mollusc shells.

On a sunny February weekend I made a trip out to Bere Island (Oiléan Béarra), a short ferry-ride off the southwestern tip of Ireland, to investigate a peculiar botanical phenomenon. An old friend had called on me recently and enquired what the connection was between otters and scurvygrass (Cochlearia officinalis L.*). I confessed to knowing nothing about it and was slightly sceptical, but he was adamant that there was such an association, and wanted to show me in person. Any excuse for a field trip is welcomed so off I went.

Once there on the ground there’s no doubt about it. The otter haul-outs are very obvious, and invariably marked with scurvygrass. The plant does grow elsewhere, unsurprisingly, but never in such densities and with such luxuriant foliage as where they occur alongside otter signs. Whatever the otters are doing, the scurvygrass is enjoying it. A representative sample of rocky outcrops suggests that if you spot a patch of scurvygrass it’s clear indication that once you get up close there will be matching evidence of otters. Neighbouring outcrops lacking the plant are also devoid of otter signs.

It’s not only at the shoreline where otters leave the sea, and where their spraint or the remnants of smashed shells indicates favoured spots to hang out. Their tracks continue inland. Often after coming onshore the track leads directly to a freshwater pool, suggesting that they like to wash the salt water off their fur, then out the other side. They then wend their way through the grass and heather, apparently choosing to cross the island on foot rather than swim their way round.

This is where it gets even more interesting: in the midst of these fields, scurvygrass is only found on the otter trails. Elsewhere the sward is higher and there is no sign of the plant. Otters are clearly carrying scurvygrass inland and encouraging it to grow in places where it otherwise would not. This effect is only seen in fields which don’t contain livestock; cows and sheep have a tendency to share the same trails with otters and perhaps browse or beat down the scurvygrass. But on the old military firing range, where otters have the land to themselves, every one of their trails is peppered with patches of the plant.

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An inland otter track through a field with a dense grass sward. Scurvygrass can only be found along this trail.

On returning to the office I consulted the usual books to see whether I could find any record of this particular association, and drew a blank. Web searches, whether in the scientific literature or the internet at large, have also come up with nothing. So what is going on? I have a few hypotheses:

  1. It’s a coincidence. Any ecologist has to keep the null hypothesis in the back of their minds. Maybe this is pure chance, or else some unknown independent environmental factor dictates the combined presence of otters and scurvygrass. I haven’t done a randomised sampling design to demonstrate a statistical association, but often the evidence of your eyes is enough to tell you that there’s no need.
  2. Otter disturbance. Scurvygrass thrives in patches with frequent disturbance, and the constant to-and-fro of otters might open up denser vegetation in such a way that they allow it to enter. Perhaps scurvygrass is more tolerant of this kind of disturbance than other plants.
  3. Dispersal by otters. The seeds of scurvygrass don’t look like they are adapted for sticking to the sides of animals, which would be one mechanism. Do otters eat scurvygrass, and thereby carry the seeds with them, defacating them in freshly-disturbed areas that aid its germination? This is currently my favoured explanation, but I don’t know enough about the diet of otters to be sure.
  4. Saline environments. Perhaps all the salt water clinging to the fur of otters changes the soil at their haul-outs and along their trails, favouring the growth of a halophyte such as scurvygrass. This is possible, but not entirely plausible given the presence of patches quite a way inland and even after they’ve taken a freshwater bath. Soil samples might resolve this. There are also no other halophytes which show the same pattern.
  5. Otters go where the scurvygrass is. Maybe they like the feel of it on their paws? It’s unlikely to be that they’re feeding on it, otherwise you would expect to see less scurvygrass in the places they use most frequently, while the opposite appears to be true.

Have I missed anything? Is this a known phenomenon that my friend has independently discovered? I’d be interested to hear from anyone who knows more about this in the comments. For now it’s only a small mystery, but also an intriguing natural history observation, and a reminder that people who walk outdoors and watch the world around them carefully often spot patterns that professional ecologists in their offices would never find.

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Credit to Bere Island resident Maurice Neligan for spotting this interesting pattern.


* This is as close as I can get to an exact species identification. Stace notes (in the 3rd edition; I don’t have the latest one just yet) that C. officinalis is highly variable, an aggregate of several likely species, and also freely hybridises with C. anglica and C. danica, especially in Ireland.

UPDATES!

As ever, Twitter provides a wealth of insights from other botanists. Here are the pick of the suggestions:

The first can be summarised as ‘disturbance + fertiliser’, the second with the twist of extra salinity, which might not be important given observations elsewhere. But scurvygrass isn’t only found where spraint occurs. It’s also along trails, some of which are quite steep, and any spraint is likely to roll or blow away pretty quickly. Otters may be marking trails with urine which could have a similar effect. Scurvygrass is also found right at the point at which otters emerge from the sea. I can’t help thinking that there must be a dispersal element to the story as well. This seems to be supported by another sighting of scurvygrass associated with birds:

There’s only one thing for it — we need to do some experiments! This may not be the most important project on my list but it makes for an enjoyable distraction.

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Why should anyone care about Ugandan lianas?

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The liana team surveying in 2015 (Takuji Usui, Julian Baur and first author Telma Laurentino). Bridget Ogolowa (far left) did not participate in the study. Photo by Line Holm Andersen.

Habent sua fata libelli as the Latin epithet puts it, meaning ‘little books also have their destinies’. I’d like to think that the same is true of papers. Not every scientific publication appears in a major journal, or attracts media attention, or becomes a highly-cited classic. Some, perhaps, are never read again by anyone. This doesn’t mean that publishing them wasn’t valuable. A paper represents a new piece of knowledge or insight that adds to our total understanding of the world. And in some cases its small part in the greater whole is the main reason why it matters.

As an example, our latest paper just came out in African Journal of Ecology, a minor regional journal with an impact factor so small (0.797 in 2017) that in the metric-obsessed world of Higher Education it barely registers. Some would argue that the effort of publishing in such a low-status journal is a waste of time*. Why bother?

In this case, our study — small and limited in scope as it was — adds an important point on the map. Over recent years it has been noted that the abundance of lianas is increasing in South American forests. This process, sometimes known as ‘lianification’, is troubling because lianas can impede the growth of forest trees, or the recovery of forests following disturbance (including logging). At a time when we need forests to capture carbon from the atmosphere, an increase in the abundance of lianas could be exactly what we don’t want.

The causes of this increase in lianas are unknown, and it is also uncertain how widespread the effect might be. The best evidence that it’s happening comes from neotropical forests**, but we can’t be sure whether the same process is occurring in Southeast Asia, or Sri Lanka, or Africa. If the driver is global one, for example a change in the climate (warming, higher carbon dioxide concentrations, or longer dry seasons) then we would expect the same trend to be occurring everywhere. If it’s a purely local effect within South America then it might reflect historical factors, modern disturbance or the particular composition of plant communities.

It’s not just that we don’t know whether lianas are increasing in all parts of the world simultaneously; for most forests we don’t even know how many lianas were there in the first place. We could only find evidence of four published studies of liana abundance in the entirety of Africa, of which two were in secondary or transitional forests. That means only two previous studies on the continent had measured lianas in a primary forest. If we want to monitor change then we first need a starting point.

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Location of our study in in Kanyawara, Kibale National Park, Uganda. Figure 1 in Laurentino et al. (2018).

What did we find? Actually it turns out that liana densities in our forest were quite similar to those seen elsewhere in the world. An average liana basal area of 1.21 m2/ha is well within the range observed in other forests, as are the colonisation rates, with 24% of saplings and 57% of trees having at least one liana growing on them. These figures are unexceptional.

What does this tell us about lianification? To be completely honest, nothing. Or at least not yet. A single survey can’t say anything about whether the abundance of lianas in Africa is increasing, decreasing, or not changing at all. The point is that we now have baseline data from a part of the world where no-one had looked before. On their own these data aren’t particularly interesting. But considering the global context, and the potential for future studies to compare their work with ours, means that we have placed one more small piece in the jigsaw. And for the most part, that’s what science is about.

 

CODA: There’s another story behind this paper, because it came about through the awesome work of the Tropical Biology Association, an educational charity whose aims are capacity-building for ecologists in Africa and exposing ecologists from species-poor northern countries to the diversity and particular challenges of the tropics. Basically they’re fantastic, and I can’t recommend their courses highly enough. The work published here is based on a group project from the 2015 field course in Uganda and represents the first paper by three brilliant post-graduate students, Telma Laurentino, Julian Baur and Takuji Usui, who did all the real work***. That alone justifies publishing it, and I hope it’s only the first output of their scientific careers.


 

* A colleague at a former employer once memorably stated in a staff meeting that any journal with an IF of less than 8 was ‘detritus’. This excluded all but a handful of the most prestigious journals in ecology but was conveniently mid-ranking in his own field.

** Although this might be confounded by other factors — look out for a paper on this hopefully some time in 2019.

*** I also blogged about the liana study at the time here.

What’s the worst that could happen?

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I’d be happy to never have to fly in one of these ever again.

I never intended for the expedition to end with me pulling one of my students out of a river after a packhorse fell on top of her while crossing. We were in Kamchatka, Far East Russia, one of the remotest corners of the world, surveying forests. This was to be our last day in the field. We had just broken camp and begun the day-long hike back to the village where we would collect our samples, have a farewell party and make our way back to the UK. Instead we ended up requiring a helicopter evacuation and spent much of our remaining time dealing with Russian hospitals and insurance claims.*

On the other hand, we had planned for this. Well, not for this precise eventuality, but we knew what to do when it happened. Actually our Plan A failed, but we were sufficiently well-prepared that Plan B came through. This played a major role in ensuring that the student in question returned home safely and made a full recovery.**

At this time of year the thoughts of many ecologists turn to where they will be next summer as they begin putting together grant applications. This is therefore the right time to start planning not only for the fun parts — where you’re going, what data you’ll be collecting, who will be coming with you — but also asking what’s the worst that could happen, and being fully prepared. It’s your responsibility to keep your team safe, even if sometimes they don’t like being told.

I sit on the grants committee of the British Ecological Society. If you’re applying to us for funding in the current round, you’ll notice that there’s a box for you to comment on safety planning. This is not merely a procedural step. I’ve been known to shoot down proposals where there has clearly been inadequate consideration of the hazards involved in a project. You don’t need to have direct personal experience of the site or procedures (although that helps), but you need to convince us that you’ve taken good advice and planned accordingly. Why should funding bodies care about your risk assessment? Apart from a genuine concern that fieldwork is conducted with high safety standards, there is also a potential reputational risk if a trip that we’ve financed goes badly wrong.

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Hey, don’t judge the quality of the plaster cast. It did the trick for as long as we needed it to.

My experience comes from not just living through a crisis on an expedition, but participating in or leading a large number of trips in which nothing serious happened. There were problems and near misses, and we learnt from them. I’m also on our university panel for assessing remote field trips from many different faculties. We have people working in war zones, refugee camps, polar ice-caps and coral reefs. It’s rare that any location is declared entirely unsafe to work in (but check the latest warnings from the FCO); with good planning we’re happy to send people almost anywhere. So here are some general guidelines.

1. Know the rules: the Royal Geographical Society no longer publish their excellent Expedition Handbook in hard copy, but the good news is that the chapters are freely available online. This includes six chapters on Health and Safety; there’s much more good advice elsewhere on the website. If you’re in the UK then the regulatory standard for activities outside the UK is BS 8848. This is the legal standard by which you can expect to be judged if anything goes wrong, so make yourself familiar with this.

2.  Training: having someone with medical training is essential. This doesn’t need to be to professional standards; there are specific courses that cater for the types of situation you’re likely to encounter on expeditions, as well as guidance on what you need to know. It’s just as important to know how to deal with the trivial stuff as it is to recognise when you need to call for help or evacuate. This is a standard much higher than a normal workplace safety course. First Aid training is intended to help you keep someone alive until the ambulance arrives, ideally within the hour. If the ambulance isn’t coming you’ll need a higher level of competence. I would ensure that at least two people are trained, not only in case one of them gets injured, but because when you do have to look after a casualty it helps to have several people taking turns.

Also consider leadership training, especially if you haven’t had much expedition experience. I’ve not done any of these courses but a quick online search suggests that there are plenty out there.

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Any ambulance is super if it turns up.

3. Insurance: most holiday travel policies will not cover a remote casevac (casualty evacuation). You need to make sure that you have specific cover for the activities you’re doing and the full costs of evacuation and medical care. I’m lucky that our university provides this, though only on condition that we meet stringent standards for our planning.

More to the point, a helicopter won’t even take off without being certain that someone is going to pay them. They don’t fly on goodwill and hope. Just as important as having the insurance is knowing who to call to access it, and making sure that the agencies coming to your rescue know that you’re a paying customer. Find out where the helicopter station is (or the coastguard, or whoever you’re relying on for rescue), and it does no harm to drop in right at the start of the trip and let them have your location and insurance details.

4. Get advice. Within the UK, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel guides are a useful first point of reference. Others who have been before you will be a trove of useful insights, including things you perhaps haven’t thought of yet.

Most importantly, always talk to locals. They will have the greatest awareness of specific hazards and how to deal with them. For example, I don’t worry overly much about brown bears in Kamchatka because I know that in the areas where we work, they won’t have encountered many people, and the only ones they will have seen are hunters. This means that they’re relatively timid: they run away if they hear you coming, and they avoid our camps. I would be much more cautious in Yellowstone, where bears are habituated to the presence of humans and associate us with food. Bears are always a risk but how you respond to this depends very much on the local context.

5. Buy the right equipment. We didn’t have satellite phones in Kamchatka because it’s still a militarised zone and they’re banned. We did, however, carry an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon), and while these are more common on ships, there are lightweight ones that fit easily in a rucksack. You’ll need to register it first with your local in-country agency and check on the regulations for wherever you’re going. Another alternative is the SPOT messenger, which are small and easy to carry, but global coverage isn’t quite complete. I would strongly recommend having multiple methods of summoning help, and even with all this modern technology, I still insist that everyone on my teams carries whistles and flares.

6. Complete your risk assessments and ensure everyone has read and agreed to them. Your workplace will have a safety officer, an agreed procedure and a set of standard forms. Moan as much as you want about this — everyone does — but don’t let that get in the way of actually doing it. The process exists to protect you, your colleagues and everyone working with you. Don’t omit any local guides, staff and collaborators: they also have a role to play in overall safety. (As an illustration, our accident was directly caused by the local guide.)

7. Do you have a code of conduct and sexual harrassment policy? If not then you are placing members of your team at risk, so you need one, then demand that everyone has  read and understood it, preferably by forcing them to sign a form.

8. Follow through: risk assessments often make noble claims about how they’re going to keep in touch with people back at base, fill in log-books, text GPS locations on a daily basis, call a named contact at the same time every day… all these promises. Some of them are overkill, and I’ve stopped believing many of them. Safety planning isn’t there just to satisfy your insurers, and it shouldn’t be forgotten the moment you get to the field. Make time to role-play a casevac as part of the on-site induction, then conduct regular self-assessments and checks throughout your trip.

Most of all, remember that safety planning isn’t about removing risks altogether, but knowing how to reduce them and cope when the worst happens. Our story had a happy ending, and has since been used in courses as an example of best practice, but only because the groundwork had been put in place long beforehand. Start now.


* Here’s a newspaper report from the time; it’s not wholly accurate but you get the picture.

** Kim is now completely fine. As evidence, here’s a recent photo of her quite deliberately putting herself in harm’s way:

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Honestly Kim. Will you never learn?

 

 

The most important day of my scientific career

You might imagine that the most important day in my career would be linked to a significant achievement. Perhaps my PhD viva, or my first paper being accepted, or when I was offered a permanent academic job. It could be the day on which I had a Eureka! moment of discovery*. It’s none of these. Actually it took place when I was an undergraduate, only 20 years old, entirely alone and a long way from home. No data were collected. I spoke to no-one. And yet I can trace my whole academic trajectory from that day.

The location was Kamchatka, a volcanic peninsula that protrudes from the far eastern edge of Russia. It’s 12 time zones from the UK, and even nine from Moscow. This is the wild east. I was there as part of a University of Cambridge expedition to visit the newly-created Bystrinsky Nature Park, which had been designated part of the Volcanoes of Kamchatka World Heritage Site. The region had only recently been opened to foreign visitors; a few years previously it was closed even to Russian tourists. There had been almost no work published in the international scientific literature since the great botanist Eric Hultén‘s Flora of Kamchatka, completed in 1930. It had nevertheless fascinated scientists, anthropologists and explorers since at least the pioneering expeditions of Krashenninikov (1711–1755). We were treading in noble footsteps.

The main difference was that we were idiots. That doesn’t mean that we were stupid; more that we were young, naive and nowhere near as well-prepared as we thought we were. I’m still very relaxed about sending undergraduates off to far-flung parts of the world in much the same state because it was such a formative experience. We learnt more through throwing ourselves into it than any lecture could have taught us. So long as you’ve made reasonable plans and thought about safety, go for it.

At the foot of Anaun volcano, September 1998. Photo by Valeri Vassilevich Yakubov.

Younger and with much longer hair, at the foot of Anaun volcano, September 1998. Photo by Valeri Vassilevich Yakubov.

As the flight landed in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the only notable town and regional capital, a full moon was bathing low clouds with an ethereal glow, punctured by the immaculate conical peaks of the volcanoes. I distinctly remember watching this mystical landscape beneath us and thinking — before I had even set foot in it — I must find a way to come here again.

Our chosen project was to examine the spatial patterns of the local forests. I’d read that they were a mix of birch and larch, which I was assured by the legendary Peter Grubb was impossible, since both species are highly light-demanding and unable to recruit beneath a canopy. It turned out that they were exactly as Hultén had described (which is documented in a later paper). Sadly we never published our findings; they were used for our undergraduate final-year projects then shelved as we moved on to other things. I have since returned, however, and am still following up on those first hazy impressions.

Enough of the background, what of the most important day? We had been surveying a forest of stone birch (Betula ermanii) a few kilometres east of the village of Esso. Stone birch is unlike any European birch — the wood is incredibly tough and the trees have a gnarled, low-branching form as a result of heavy snowfall in the long, cold winters, which gives them an interesting architecture. If anyone ever asks for my favourite tree, or favourite forest, then I can wax lyrical about them, but for now I’ll save that for another post.

Stone birch (Betula ermanii) in the Uxychan valley, west of Esso, Kamchatka.

Stone birch (Betula ermanii) in the upper slopes of the Bystrya valley, south of Esso, Kamchatka.

Our small team had finished work in the area and decided to head back to the village for a clean-up, change of clothes, hot meal and indoor bed. I wasn’t quite ready yet though, and opted to remain behind alone. Earlier in the trip we had attempted to climb the small mountain to the east but turned back in poor weather. I was determined not to be defeated and wanted a second shot.

It was that night that I had my epiphany. Alone in the forest, sat by a roaring fire and surrounded by nothing but trees, I realised that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I sat and wrote a letter to a friend **, drank the remainder of the vodka and watched a curious mink dance through the branches above me in the flickering light ***. Nothing much happened. I sang a few songs to keep myself company (and the bears away), went to bed and passed an uneventful night. There is no doubt in my mind though — that was the crucial moment to which I can trace back my passion to work in, describe and understand the architecture of forests. It’s what I’ve devoted my life to ever since.

The next day, almost incidentally, my strike at the summit was successful. I climbed back down, collected the tent, and walked back to the village to rejoin the team around nightfall. I revisited the same peak in 2008 on another expedition. Being especially eager to see it again, I reached the summit long before the students and other scientists. This was fortunate because I promptly burst into tears. That wasn’t the only time I cried with emotion on that expedition; the second time was a few month later, on what was the best day in my scientific life so far, almost exactly ten years after that solitary night in the woods. But that’s a story for another time.


* I’m still waiting for one of those. Or at least one that doesn’t, a few days down the line, turn out to have been completely misguided.

** An interesting side-story in itself. She was at the time on another expedition in New Caledonia. Not only did she eventually receive my letter, she replied, and I received it — perhaps the only time that letters have been exchanged between Kamchatka and New Caledonia. This was of course long before the days of global internet and constant e-mail access. She is now a well-known conservation biologist in her own right and has probably forgotten our correspondence.

*** Mink were introduced to the peninsula centuries ago by fur-trappers and were once one of its most important exports. They are now fully naturalised, and with so little hunting taking place, they have almost no fear of humans.