February 2017 - A recent publication from the Insect Ecology Group
"The impacts of habitat disturbance on adult and larval dragonflies (Odonata) in rainforest streams in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo"
Photo credit: Sarah Luke
Dragonfly communities in tropical rainforest streams in Malaysian Borneo are heavily affected by selective logging and conversion of surrounding land to oil palm plantations.
A study led by researchers in the Insect Ecology Group, and carried out at the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) Project in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, found that communities of both adult dragonflies and their larvae were substantially different in oil palm and logged forest streams compared to streams in old growth forests.
The team surveyed adult and larval dragonflies across 16 streams, including streams surrounded by old growth forest, selectively logged forest of different qualities, and oil palm plantations. Some of the oil palm plantation streams had narrow strips of forest left along their banks (riparian buffers), whilst others had oil palm growing right to the water’s edge.
Very different sets of species were found across the sites, with more widespread and common dragonflies, and fewer forest-dependent and range-restricted damselflies, found at sites surrounded by oil palm or heavily logged forest, compared to old growth forest streams. There were also fewer larvae in oil palm plantation streams, than in streams surrounded by higher quality forest, suggesting that dragonflies and damselflies are using these streams much less for breeding, or that larvae are surviving less well in oil palm streams.
Having riparian buffers around streams in oil palm seems to offer some protection for forest-associated dragonflies, but only if the buffers are wide, and mostly for adults rather than larvae. Efforts to protect forest dragonfly communities should therefore focus on conserving remaining forest areas, but good management and preservation of forested riparian buffers in oil palm plantations could also be highly valuable.
This work is published in the open access paper “The impacts of habitat disturbance on adult and larval dragonflies (Odonata) in rainforest streams in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo” in the journal Freshwater Biology (available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/fwb.12880/abstract) by Sarah H Luke, Rory A Dow, Stephen Butler, Chey Vun Khen, David C Aldridge, William A Foster and Edgar C Turner.
The European Conference of Tropical Ecology, Brussels
The Insect Ecology group, and collaborators from the University of Southampton, recently attended and presented their work at The European Conference of Tropical Ecology in Brussels. The conference was hosted by the Society for Tropical Ecology (formerly Gesellschaft für Tropenökologie e.V., gtö) – Europe’s largest tropical ecology society – and was attended by over 360 delegates, from 37 different countries. The theme of the conference was “(Re)connecting biodiversity in space and time”, and symposia topics included issues relating to traits, functions, genetics, animal behaviour, land-use impacts, and conservation, across a wide range of tropical biomes.
The BEFTA Project team – including Ed Turner, Sarah Luke, Millie Hood and Julie Hinsch from the University of Cambridge, and Jake Snaddon from the University of Southampton – gave presentations on recent findings from the BEFTA Project in the “Human-modified tropical forests” symposium. Masters students from the University of Southampton – Frances Mullany and Georgina Hollands – also presented a poster on their work looking at the impacts of a hurricane on butterfly and ant communities in Belize.
Sarah began by introducing the topic of oil palm, and the need to strike a balance between the demands of production and protecting ecosystems. She introduced the BEFTA Project, discussing its aim of testing the effects of understory vegetation complexity in oil palm plantations on biodiversity, ecosystem function, and yield; and also explained the experimental design of the BEFTA Project (more information here: http://oilpalmbiodiversity.com/research/befta-project/). She then presented some early results looking at the effects of manipulation of the understory vegetation at BEFTA on canopy ants, caterpillars, and herbivory of oil palm leaves. Results so far suggest that oil palm ecosystems are more complex than we might think, with high variability over time, including in response to rainfall. No effects of understory treatments are yet evident on canopy communities, but there has also not yet been a drop in yield as a result of the treatments. It will be interesting to keep monitoring effects over time.
Ed was the next to speak, and took a closer look at the effects of the BEFTA understory treatments on predators within the understory. He presented findings of Cambridge Masters students – Dave Kurz and Dakota Spear – along with his work from the project. They found that there was lower frog, assassin bug, and spider abundance and richness in the understory of reduced complexity plots compared to normal and enhanced plots. This included lower abundance of large golden orb web spiders (Nephila spp) in reduced complexity plots, and a consequent drop in prey consumption across these plots. However, they found no difference in the diversity or abundance of ground or canopy spiders between plots with different understory treatments. Altogether this shows that having more complex understory vegetation helps to support a wider range of predators, which could be a key part of pest management within plantations.
Julie continued the theme of pest management within oil palm plantations, by presenting results from her Masters and PhD projects on the value of planting nectar-rich plants within oil palm plantations to help promote beneficial insect predators. These beneficial insects include parasitic and predatory wasps that feed on caterpillars and other herbivores that eat the oil palm leaves. Extensive loss of leaves has been shown to harm oil palm yield, and so plantations are keen to control herbivores. Julie is testing whether the nectar-rich plants can help boost the beneficial insect populations, and therefore reduce the need for pesticides to be used in the plantations. Her results so far suggest that nectar-rich plants show great potential for increasing the abundance of beneficial insects, and consequently, reducing herbivory of palms. There is also a lot of potential for this pest management strategy to be rolled out on a larger scale across plantations by planting flowers in existing gaps in the plantations.
Alongside the above-ground work the team have collected data on how the BEFTA treatments and habitat complexity is affecting the below-ground biodiversity and processes. Jake presented an overview of this work selecting some results from Adham Ashton-Butt (http://www.southampton.ac.uk/biosci/postgraduate/research_students/aab1v14.page) and Hsaio-Hang Tao’s (http://seap.ipni.net/person/Hsiao-Hang-Tao) PhD projects. Adham’s initial measurements of chemical and physical properties have shown that while soil nutrients change little across the sites, soil moisture is decreased in the reduced vegetation cover BEFTA plots. This impact on soil moisture is also apparent in the data from the replanted areas, which show that as the vegetation cover matures, soil moisture increases at the sites. To complement this, Hsiao’s work on the impact of empty fruit bunch (EFB) application on soil biodiversity and soil properties shows a positive impact of EFB on soil moisture, leading to a positive relationship between soil moisture under the EFB plots and oil palm yield. Work is continuing on the identification and analysis of the soil biodiversity from the plots, and it will be interesting to see how the diversity contributes to this system.
Millie continued the theme of below-ground ecosystem functions, presenting results on soil bioturbation and leaf litter decomposition from her PhD. She has found that oil palm plots that had been replanted, and currently have young palms growing (4 years old at time of study), had no termite mounds and lower rates of leaf litter decomposition compared to mature (25-30 year old) plantation. In the mature plantation, there were more active termite mounds and higher rates of leaf litter decomposition where levels of understory vegetation were higher. She also showed that herbivore abundance is higher in mature plots that do not have understory vegetation, and that herbivory is higher in replanted plots than in mature plots. By comparing a range of ecosystem functions, she was able to show that mature plots with enhanced or normal levels of understory vegetation are functioning more optimally than mature plots with reduced understory vegetation, or replanted plots. Millie plans to test these functions further by conducting ant and termite exclusion experiments, to assess the role of these insects in ecosystem processes within the plantation.
Cambridge Science Festival
In under two months time Cambridge will host its annual Science Festival - fourteen days of talks, films, and interactive events celebrating science, maths, technology. For more information about Science Festival 2017 please visit: http://www.sciencefestival.cam.ac.uk/
Work from Amelia Hood - a PhD student in the Insect Ecology Group - featured in last year's festival. Her close-up image of nine species of Polyrhachis ants, created using microscopes and image stitching technology, was presented in an exhibition of scientific images that celebrated the use of techniques beyond just a simple camera shot.
A full description of Amelia's photographs, along with some of the other work presented in the "Beyond Images" exhibition can be found here:
Totternhoe reserve is home to many butterfly species, including the rare Duke of Burgundy
After being taught the basics it was time to put my new GPS mapping skills to the test. Over the course of a week I began to record all of the different areas of habitat present at Totternhoe Quarry. I was helped by an undergraduate student, Marcus Rhodes, and whilst one of us walked the perimeter of the habitat areas, the other recorded slope, aspect, vegetation type and shelter.
Slightly frustrating periods of time would elapse as the GPS recorder could suddenly lose accuracy, giving measurements with several metres of potential error. However, with a bit of patience we were able to wait for the GPS to behave and we made good progress. In all we mapped around 80% of the 14-acre reserve in just 4 days.
Once the last few habitat areas are recorded the final pieces of GPS work will involve mapping the overall reserve boundary and a series of pathways that crisscross the site. After that I will attempt to use Geographic Information Software to stitch the mapped features together into a cohesive representation of the reserve. In the Summer, behavioural sightings of the Duke of Burgundy butterfly can then be added to the map and hopefully this will help us see which habitat features promote mating and flight activity in this threatened species.
Matt Hayes, MPhil student
Matt (top picture) and Marcus (middle picture) busy mapping the reserve
Winter fieldwork at Totternhoe Quarry
During the Summer the main part of my research project will be looking at how temperature change affects the territorial and mating behaviour of the Duke of Burgundy butterfly (Hamearis Lucina). However, those warm Summer days are still some way off and the adults won’t be on the wing until late April. Luckily this gives me plenty of time to prepare and also gives me the chance to try my hand at learning some new GPS mapping skills!
Over the Winter I plan to map Totternhoe Quarry reserve into areas of homogenous habitat. I will record vegetation type, slope, aspect and shelter and log how these features change across the site. Then come the Summer, when I view the adult behaviour of the Duke of Burgundy, I will be able to place my findings in an environmental context. When I observe a butterfly, I will be able to record its GPS coordinate and simply overlay this data onto my map of the reserve, giving us information on behavioural distributions. This could help us to identify key habitat features that promote a suitable microclimate for this charismatic butterfly and aid us in performing suitable management for it into the future.
The weather (29th November) was set to be cold so I was prepared for difficult working conditions. However, I woke to a beautiful frosty morning with the sun shining at Totternhoe. I then met up with Colin Lucas, formerly of the Wildlife Trust and a veteran of using GPS equipment, who had very kindly offered to teach me how to map the reserve. After a tricky initial hour, where the GPS appeared incapable of record anything other than error messages, we began to make progress. When working correctly the mapping equipment allows you to efficiently note down key habitat features and assign them to real geographic locations by walking around the perimeter of the area in question. By the end of the day I had successfully mapped my first dozen habitat areas and learn’t the basics of producing a GPS version of the reserve. However, my real test will come when I return to the reserve and have to finish the mapping without the help of Colin….!
Matt Hayes, MPhil student
March 2016 - Edgar Turner to become next Curator of Insects
Dr Edgar Turner will become the next Curator of Insects and Insect Ecology Group Leader when William Foster retires in September 2016. He will continue his current research on ecology and conservation in the UK, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as developing new projects related to the insect collections, outreach and teaching in the department.
Ed recently got this special mention in the Zoology Alumni magazine:
February 2016 - Visit to local school
Ed Turner and Amelia Hood went to the University of Cambridge Primary School for a morning to teach four classes of young students the value and fascinating nature of insects. Ed’s collection of live stick insects incited particularly high levels of enthusiasm, with the female Malaysian jungle nymph (Heteropteryx dilatata) being the most gasp-worthy. The children enjoyed handling the smaller species, such as the Indian stick insects (Carausius morosus). The class finished with a lesson in camouflage and aposematism, and the students coloured in their own insect drawings in light of this exercise.
February 2016 - Insect specimens loaned to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, to support their upcoming exhibition 'Crawling with life'
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, has just opened a new exhibition of watercolours by the 17th century German naturalists and illustrators Maria Sibylla Merian and Jacob Marrel. They produced a series of highly detailed watercolours of insects, amphibians, reptiles and plants. These works are supported by illustrations of carnivorous plants by German born scientist and illustrator Georg Dionysius Ehret and the French artist and engraver Nicolas Robert.
The Zoology Museum has loaned several of its insect specimens to help support this exhibition.
The exhibition has Free Entry and runs from Tue 2 February 2016 to Sun 8 May 2016.
For more information please visit:
September 2015 - Session on oil palm in Southeast Asia accepted for the European Conference on Tropical Ecology, 2016
Insect Ecology group members will be running a conference session entitled 'Managing oil palm landscapes for biodiversity and production: lessons from SE Asia' at the European Conference on Tropical Ecology being held in Gottingen, Germany, in February 2016.
This session will bring together researchers from multiple institutions and countries to discuss research on biodiversity and function of oil palm ecosystems in Southeast Asia, and possible strategies for management and conservation.
For more information about the conference please visit:
May 2015 - "Thirty new fly species in Los Angeles" - a special mention in Science Editors' Choice for work by Henry Disney
(Photo taken from the Science Editors' Choice article, linked below, and originally taken by Kelsey Bailey)
Along with collaborators Emily Hartop and Brian Brown from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, Insect Ecology group's Henry Disney has described 30 new species of Megaselia (Phorid flies) found in gardens in Los Angeles.
The species are described in a recent paper in the journal Zootaxa:
The work has also been highlighted in the Editors' Choice section of the high profile journal Science where they note that even seemingly unpromising urban habitats can yield biodiversity surprises, however it's still uncertain whether these flies are native or exotic species that have been brought in by container shipping.
You can read more here:
April 2015 - More recent high profile publications for Insect Ecology group members!
A new paper in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution (TREE) led by former group member Tom Fayle, and co-authored by current group member Ed Turner, reviews the recent increase in whole-ecosystem experimental manipulations of tropical forests. They discuss how experimental manipulations, and particularly those on a large scale, offer an important opportunity for trying to tease apart the highly complex interactions between environmental conditions, species and the functions of a complex rainforest system, and therefore offer a crucial first step towards conservation.
The paper published in TREE this week is available here:
A second paper out this week co-authored by Ed Turner and led by group collaborators from Imperial College and the SAFE Project in Borneo, presents data on the carbon stocks held in deadwood in logged forests. From studies of forest plots in selectively logged forest in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, they found that more than half of the above-ground carbon in the forests was in deadwood rather than living trees, and so was likely to soon decompose and emit carbon dioxide. This figure is over twice the amount predicted previously in literature, suggesting that the large deadwood stocks in logged forests have previously been overlooked, and therefore a large source of carbon emissions may have been missed out of emissions estimates.
Lead author, Dr Marion Pfeiffer, said:
"It means that a large proportion of forests worldwide are less of a sink and more of a source, especially immediately following logging, as carbon dioxide is released from the dead wood during decomposition.”
The paper published in Environmental Research Letters is available here:
Articles that discuss this work further are available here:
April 2015 - Graham Prescott wins 'best student talk' prize at the gtoe European Tropical Ecology Conference, Zurich
Insect Ecology group member Graham Prescott recently picked up the prize for 'best student talk' at the German Society for Tropical Ecology conference, held in Zurich. The conference was attended by over 300 people from 37 countries, and addressed the theme of 'Resilience of Tropical Ecosystems: Future challenges and opportunities'.
Graham presented results of his work studying avian phylogenetic diversity in forest, oil palm and pasture land in Colombia. His PhD considers the impacts of oil palm agriculture on bird, ant and epiphyte communities, and how plantations can be managed more sustainably to help protect biodiversity.
April 2015 - "Logging cuts the functional importance of invertebrates in tropical rainforest" - a new Nature Communications publication
Termites on the move. Photo credit: Sarah Luke
Insect room researchers Ed Turner and Sarah Luke are co-authors on a new paper published in Nature Communications that considers the changing role of invertebrates in ecosystem functions in logged tropical forests.
The research is a collaborative project led by Dr Rob Ewers, Imperial College London, that uses work by multiple scientists working at the SAFE Project (www.safeproject.net) in Malaysian Borneo to consider how logging affects ecosystem function. In pristine forests many ecosystem functions are completed by invertebrates, but in logged forests invertebrate communities are reduced and their role in ecosystem functions declines significantly. Instead, ecosystem functions in logged forests are maintained largely by vertebrates. Although this might be working in the short term, it means that logged forest are likely to be very vulnerable and have little resilience to further changes.
Dr Ewers says: “The forest will keep maintaining itself, but it will be much more susceptible to further change. Relying on vertebrates is a bad tactic – they are less diverse and vulnerable to new challenges such as land use change.”
For example, if logged forest is further converted to oil palm, vertebrates are especially likely to be affected, meaning that ecosystem functioning will change substantially. “Knocking out one or two invertebrates might not be too bad, as there are many others to take their place, but knocking out one or two vertebrates could now be disastrous,” said Dr Ewers.
The rainforest of Malaysian Borneo appears to have shown resilience to selective logging, with vertebrates maintaining functions previously provided by invertebrates. But with large areas of rainforest in Southeast Asia already selectively logged, or cleared for oil palm, and further conversion still underway, we must consider whether this resilience can be maintained and how vulnerable logged forest ecosystems now are.
A press-release with further discussion of the study is available here:
The original journal article is freely available here:
Image is a screen shot taken from the Nature Communications link above
February 2015 - William Foster in BBC's 'Great British Railway Journeys'
Curator of Insects and head of the Insect Ecology Group, William Foster, discusses the work of Charles Darwin and his love of insect collecting with Michael Portillo in this week's episode of 'Great British Railway Journeys'.
The programme covers the journey from Oakham to Cambridge, and considers the beetle collecting of young Charles Darwin when he was a student at Christ's College, Cambridge. William Foster goes on to discuss Darwin's work in the Galapagos and his long term study of barnacles that led him to develop the theory of evolution.
The programme was first shown on BBC2 on 30th January and is available to watch again on BBC iPlayer at the link below. The discussion of Cambridge and Darwin's work starts at 22 minutes into the programme:
Image is a still from the programme taken from the BBC iPlayer link above.
February 2015 - "Can biodiversity make us happy?"
A collaborative project with the Simon Langton Girls' Grammar School in Canterbury funded by a Royal Society Partnership Grant
Ed Turner, affiliated researcher in the Insect Ecology Group, has just been involved as Scientific Partner in a winning Royal Society Partnership Grant with the Simon Langton Girls’ Grammar School in Canterbury. The project ‘Can biodiversity make us happy’ will foster collaboration between Cambridge and the school, to increase the school student’s understanding of biodiversity and the well-being benefits of the natural world.
As well as visiting the University’s Institute of Continuing Education to receive training in biodiversity monitoring in the Madingley Hall grounds, students will also be encouraged to actively monitor biodiversity in the school’s newly-designed wildlife area.
Lead teacher on the project, Mrs Samantha Goodfellow, said ‘this project will really inspire our students and will give them a chance to design their own methods for monitoring biodiversity and well-being. These are difficult concepts even for experienced researchers and will allow our students to develop their scientific skills in key areas including using keys, books and technology (apps) to identify species. They will also be encouraged to use equipment to measure blood pressure and pulse and they will work to design their own questionnaires and interpret written and verbal communication. We will also be encouraging other students from junior and secondary schools to actively engage in the project.’
Ed Turner said ‘This is an exciting project, which I am very keen to be involved with. As a research biologist studying the impacts of environmental change on the natural world, it is clear that we are experiencing rapid rates of species loss worldwide. Although this is driven by a range of anthropogenic changes, among the most insidious underlying factors exacerbating these losses is people’s increasing disconnection with the natural world, meaning that extinctions may go unnoticed and unchallenged. This project embodies an approach to addressing this issue by explicitly engaging young people in the natural world through an inspiring research and conservation project.’
The project begins in March 2015 and runs for seven months.
January 2015 - A new species of dragonfly – ‘the SAFE clawtail’, Phaenandrogomphus safei – discovered in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo
Insect Ecology group member Sarah Luke and her collaborator Rory Dow have discovered a species of dragonfly that is new to science during work at the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) Project in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. It is the first time this species has ever been found, and the first species within its genus, Phaenandrogomphus, to be recorded within the island of Borneo. It has been named formally as Phaenandrogomphus safei after the SAFE Project – the research project and site where it was found - and given the common name ‘the SAFE clawtail’ because of the distinctive claw-like appendages at the end of its abdomen.
A single male was found at one of the SAFE Project streams during standardised dragonfly transect samplings conducted by Sarah Luke as part of her PhD work studying freshwater macroinvertebrates. The dragonfly is a small member of the family Gomphidae and has a mainly black thorax and abdomen, with pale green stripes.
Left: Phaenandrogomphus safei in the field. Top right: Phaenandrogomphus safei holotype. Bottom right: Phaenandrogomphus safei head, dorsal view. Photo credits Sarah Luke and Rory Dow.
The discovery of this dragonfly also sheds light on the taxonomy of another gomphid species, Onychogomphus treadawayi. The most morphologically similar species to the new Phaenandrogomphus safei is not in fact any mainland Phaenandrogomphus species, but actually O.treadawayi which is known from a single male specimen found in the Philippines. It has therefore been decided that O.treadawayi should be reclassified within the genus Phaenandrogomphus.
This is the first new species described from the SAFE Project – a large, long-term study monitoring the impacts of forest disturbance and fragmentation on ecosystems – but it is hoped that as work continues at the site more of Borneo’s unknown fauna will be discovered. First author, Rory Dow said: “Discoveries such as this demonstrate how much there is still to learn about the dragonfly fauna of Borneo. Very large areas of Borneo have never been systematically surveyed, or in many cases surveyed at all, for dragonflies; it is very likely that there are numerous discoveries still to be made.”
However, Dow also commented that “habitat is being changed by human activities at a rapid rate across Borneo, so that time may be running out for many of these fascinating insects, whilst at the same time there is an almost total lack of funding for the kind of survey work needed to find them, and the taxonomic work needed to identify and describe them.”
The type specimen will be deposited at the Forest Research Centre, Sepilok – a research institution in Sabah. The paper discussing this discovery “Phaenandrogomphus safei, a new species from Sabah, northern Borneo (Odonata: Anisoptera: Gomphidae)” written by Rory A Dow and Sarah H Luke is published open access in the journal Zootaxa and is available here: http://dx.doi.org/10.11646/zootaxa.3905.1.10
November 2014 - Insect sorting with Masters student Dave Kurz
Following my field work in the oil palm plantations of Sumatra last February and March, I found myself back in Cambridge with hundreds of tubes of invertebrates that my team and I had collected from frog stomachs. As each tube contained up to 100+ partially-digested arthropods that needed identifying, it was clear I needed help. Fortunately, three all-star undergraduates - Christine Corlet (left), Sophus Zu Ermgassen (center), and Jamie Cranston (bottom right) - were willing and eager to help. Together we plowed through the tubes and identified 4,633 invertebrates to order.
September 2014 - "Termites suffer in logged forests and palm oil plantations"
An article recently published on the conservation website Mongabay.com, discusses work by current group members Sarah Luke and Ed Turner, and former group member Tom Fayle:
(Sarah Luke collecting ants and termites with a research assistant. Photo by Tim Harvey-Samuel)
The study, published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation, considered the impacts of rain forest logging and oil palm plantations on ant and termite communities in rain forest in Borneo.
Termites showed substantial declines in abundance in disturbed habitats, but ants appeared much more resilient, with high numbers still found in logged forest and oil palm. However, both groups showed changes in assemblages and the functional groups that were found. Soil feeding termites in particular declined in disturbed habitats, whilst opportunist and behaviourally dominant ants increased in numbers.
Ants and termites are two of the most ecologically important insect groups in tropical rain forests and play crucial roles in breaking down leaves, dead wood and soil, dispersing seeds, and as predators and prey in food webs. They also interact with each other through predation, nest sharing or through changing the surrounding habitat. Changes in their abundance are therefore likely to have wide ranging effects on ecosystems.
This work is published in the open access paper “Functional structure of ant and termite assemblages in old growth forest, logged forest and oil palm plantation in Malaysian Borneo” in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation (available at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10531-014-0750-2, Volume 23, Issue 11, pp 2817-2832, online from 30th July 2014) by Sarah H Luke, Tom M Fayle, Paul Eggleton, Edgar C Turner and Richard G Davies.
April 2014 – A fieldwork update from Masters student, Dave Kurz, working at the BEFTA Project in Sumatra, Indonesia
Oil palm, frogs, and conservation on the margins
On my way to Sumatra in January, I read in my Lonely Planet guidebook that Indonesia is a kaleidoscope – geographically, culturally, and linguistically. Three months later, I’m happy to report that this charming country also contains a wonderful diversity of natural life, even in the very heart of its oil palm plantations.
Throughout February and March, I was carrying out my Masters research at the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function in Tropical Agriculture (BEFTA) (http://oilpalmbiodiversity.com/) project in the Riau province of Sumatra. My work examined the effect of oil palm management on frog assemblages and frog-invertebrate food webs. Specifically, I focused on the effects of two forms of plantation management: understory clearing and re-planting of oil palm trees. Understory clearing is the chemical or mechanical removal of plants that grow between palms and is widely practised by oil palm estate managers seeking to keep pathways within plantations clear of vegetation. Re-planting of oil palm happens roughly every 25-30 years as trees reach the end of their productive lives. After this period, older palms produce lower yields and plots must be re-planted with young palms, beginning a new growth cycle.
These two management practices may have significant effects on the way the oil palm ecosystem works. That is, the way nutrients are cycled, the way different animals and plants interact, and even the productivity of the oil palms; these essential processes are likely influenced significantly by management choices. Many scientists have noted the importance of a diverse suite of life forms for healthy ecosystem functioning, and hopefully my project will contribute in a small way to that body of data by assessing the diversity and function of frogs in oil palm.
Aside from providing important data that we hope will make the oil palm industry more biodiversity-friendly, my fieldwork was a lot of fun! Because I was studying frog diets in oil palm, my field assistants and I had to stomach-flush hundreds of frogs. By “stomach-flush” I mean that we gently placed a silicon tube into the mouth of each frog in order to squirt water into its stomach, which allowed us to collect its most recent meal. If this sounds completely nuts to you, that’s ok – I’m used to that response from my friends! Check out the picture below to see what stomach-flushing looks like.
In addition to stomach-flushing, I conducted frog surveys, which allowed me to see a number of very cool frog species, as well as an assortment of other wildlife including spiders, kingfishers, barn owls, rodents, leopard cats, palm civets, and (my favourite) – snakes! I was fortunate to see a number of Sumatran cobras and blood pythons. Here is a picture of me with a beautiful red blood python (Python curtus brongersmai).
My fieldwork helped me appreciate the value of conserving wildlife in unlikely contexts like agriculture. When people I meet find out I am a biologist, they tend to think I work in steamy jungles dripping with giant snakes and deadly jaguars. Rainforests really are awesome (although it is much harder to find huge predators in them than popular culture suggests), but they are not the only locations important for conservation. Indeed, my time in Indonesia, partnering with an oil palm industry very concerned about sustainability, has helped me appreciate the real necessity of doing conservation “on the margins” and fighting to protect wildlife in all types of areas. That is, I think, the way forward to a future that ensures that we preserve the natural kaleidoscope we have been entrusted with…and the way to continue giving Lonely Planet a lot to write about.
February 2014 – recent conference presentations
Several members of the group recently presented their work at international conferences. The International Conference on Oil Palm and Environment (ICOPE), held in Bali, considered issues of oil palm sustainability and how the joint demands of oil palm growth and biodiversity conservation can be met.
William Foster and Ed Turner presented their work from the BEFTA Project in Sumatra which investigates whether habitat complexity within oil palm plantations, including understorey planting, can help preserve biodiversity and in turn, what the impacts of this are on ecosystem functioning and productivity.
Graham Prescott and Sarah Luke presented work from their PhDs at the Annual Conference for the Society of Tropical Ecology (gtö) conference held in Freising/Munich, Germany. Graham presented results from his study of oil palm systems in Colombia. Oil palm agriculture looks set to expand in Colombia and this growth needs to be done as sustainably as possible. Graham considered the relative biodiversity value of forest, pasture and oil palm habitats, and therefore the likely impacts for wildlife if different habitat types were converted to make way for oil palm.
Sarah won the Merian Award for the best student talk, presenting results from her work on the impacts of rainforest logging and oil palm plantations on freshwater macroinvertebrates, and the potential role of riparian buffer strips in their conservation.
(Image credits, in order: Jake Snaddon; gtö conference website http://www.gtoe-conference.de/; Claudia Gray; Claudia Gray)
December 2013 - a blog from Ed Turner, recently returned from fieldwork at the BEFTA Project in Indonesia
Conservation grows up?
For the general public, I think the word ‘conservationist’ still evokes an image of woolly jumpers, unwashed ponytails and sandals. The reality today is that conservationists can be everything from Greenpeace activists to government officials. Perhaps the key uniting factor is a drive towards more sustainable use of the world’s resources; development without or with a reduced loss of natural habitats and biodiversity. Central to this is integrating conservation activities and decisions within industry. Not only can this link research, policy and implementation, but it can also help to change the way that people think on the ground. It can centralise rather than peripheralize conservation decisions within industry and make sure that conservation practice is realistic, understandable and practical.
I’ve just come back from my latest fieldtrip as part of the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function in Tropical Agriculture (BEFTA) Project (link), which aims to do just that. By working closely with the oil palm industry, the project is able to experimentally test different management strategies to benefit biodiversity within oil palm plantations on a scale that would be impossible without industry involvement. The project set up includes large 150m by 150m blocks of oil palm plantation in which the understory and epiphytic plants are allowed to regrow, are removed, or are kept the same. By studying a wide variety of different species of animals and plants in these areas, as well as ecosystem processes such as leaf litter decomposition, dung removal, herbivory and even oil palm yield, we will be able to assess the role of local habitat complexity in supporting biodiversity and the potential for more biofriendly management practices. Key to this is that any recommendations made must not reduce yield. Not only is this important for industry productivity, but it also ensures that conservation management in plantations doesn’t increase pressure on remaining natural areas.
Although the project is only at the end of its first year it is already yielding interesting results. In particular we have found that oil palm plantations are more variable and diverse than might be expected. More open areas along roads and near rivers contain different communities of insects than plantation interiors. Not just that, but these species are doing things – litter decomposition occurs at a more rapid rate when insects are involved. This doesn’t mean that plantations are in any way comparable or as diverse as the rainforests they replaced, but rather that they still contain species. These probably aren’t forest species, but they’re still species that make the ecosystem function. Working alongside industry also means that information on herbicide, pesticide and fertiliser applications as well as oil palm yield can be linked to biodiversity measurements, allowing the economic impacts of different management strategies to be tested.
So when you think about conservationists, I hope that you won’t just consider the baggy jumpers and hairstyle choices. A conservationist could just as well be a wildlife reserve manager in the Lake District or an oil palm grower in Malaysia. Conservation shouldn’t just check up on industry practice, although this is very important, it should also be working with and within industry to influence and implement decisions. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have a ponytail. Or wear woolly jumpers.
November 2013 - insect collections and art
Local school children have recently made use of the Insect Room Collection in their art classes. Insect Room curator, Russell Stebbings, arranged for students to work with the museum's 'handling collection' - specimens that are not scientifically useful because of missing information about their collection date and location, but are still beautiful and make brilliant subjects for drawing.
Information and photographs taken from: