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At least 80% of the world’s most important sites for biodiversity on land currently contain human developments, study finds

3 hours 27 min ago

A study has found that infrastructure worldwide is widespread in sites that have been identified as internationally important for biodiversity, and its prevalence is likely to increase.

This is the first ever assessment of the presence of infrastructure in Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs): a global network of thousands of sites recognised internationally as being the world’s most critical areas for wildlife.

Infrastructure is one of the greatest drivers of threats to biodiversity according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It can cause natural habitat destruction and fragmentation, pollution, increased disturbance or hunting by humans, the spread of invasive species, direct mortality, and can have wider impacts beyond the development site.

Now, researchers from BirdLife International, WWF and the RSPB, in association with the University of Cambridge, have conducted an assessment of infrastructure in KBAs, finding that it is widespread and likely to increase. The results are published today in Biological Conservation.

“It’s concerning that human developments exist in the vast majority of sites that have been identified as being critical for nature,” said Ash Simkins, a Zoology PhD student at the University of Cambridge who led the study.

KBAs are sites that contribute significantly to the global persistence of biodiversity. For example, they may contain species that are under a high risk of extinction or are home to species or ecosystems that are found in only a small area worldwide.

Researchers assessed 15,150 KBAs on land and found that 80% contained infrastructure. Multiple combinations of infrastructure types occurred in KBAs with the most common being roads (75%), power lines (37%) and urban areas (37%).

They found that potential future planned infrastructure developments could lead to an additional 2,201 KBAs containing mines (from 754 to 2,955; 292% increase), an additional 1,508 KBAs containing oil and gas infrastructure (from 2,081 to 3,589; 72% increase) and an additional 1,372 KBAs containing power plants (from 233 to 1,605; 589% increase).

Maps of KBAs were intersected with spatial datasets of different types of infrastructure that researchers categorised as transport, dams and reservoirs, extractives (relating to natural resources), energy (power lines and power plants) and urban areas.

Energy and extractives were the only categories for which some global data on potential future planned developments was available.

“We recognise that infrastructure is essential to human development but it’s about building smartly. This means ideally avoiding or otherwise minimising infrastructure in the most important locations for biodiversity. If the infrastructure must be there, then it should be designed to cause as little damage as possible, and the impacts more than compensated for elsewhere,” said Simkins.

Researchers found that countries in South America, (for example 82% of KBAs in Brazil), Sub-Saharan, Central and Southern Africa, and parts of South-east Asia are amongst the areas with the highest proportion of extractive claims, concessions or planned development in their KBA networks. All of the KBAs identified to date in Bangladesh, Kuwait, the Republic of the Congo and Serbia have potential extractive claims, concessions or planned development.

“It’s also concerning to see that in the future, extensive mining and oil and gas related infrastructure is planned to be built in many of the world’s most important sites for biodiversity,” said Simkins.

Some of the technology to tackle the climate crisis, like solar panels and wind turbines, is also dependent on mining for precious metals. “We need smart solutions to the climate crisis whilst avoiding or minimising negative impacts on biodiversity,” said Simkins.

“At the UN biodiversity COP15 meetings in Montreal last year, governments committed to halting human-induced extinctions,” said co-author Dr Stuart Butchart, Chief Scientist at BirdLife International and Honorary Research Fellow at Cambridge’s Department of Zoology. “Widespread destruction or degradation of the natural habitats within KBAs could lead to wholesale extinctions, so existing infrastructure in KBAs must be managed to minimise impacts, and further development in these sites has to be avoided as far as possible.”

“Infrastructure underpins our societies, delivering the water we drink, the roads we travel on, and the electricity that powers livelihoods,” said Wendy Elliott, Deputy Leader for Wildlife at WWF. “This study illustrates the crucial importance of ensuring smart infrastructure development that provides social and economic value for all, whilst ensuring positive outcomes for nature. Making this happen will be the challenge of our time, but with the right planning, design and commitment it is well within the realms of possibility.”

Researchers say that infrastructure within a KBA varies in the degree to which it may drive a loss of biodiversity. More research is required to find out the extent to which infrastructure in a particular KBA affects wildlife within the site and what measures are needed to mitigate this.

Reference: A.T Simkins et al, A global assessment of the prevalence of current and potential future infrastructure in Key Biodiversity Areas, Biological Conservation, DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2023.109953

At least 80% of sites identified as being internationally important for biodiversity on land currently contain infrastructure − of which more than 75% contain roads. In the future, more sites that are important for biodiversity could contain powerplants, mines and oil and gas infrastructure

It’s concerning that human developments exist in the vast majority of sites that have been identified as being critical for nature.Ash SimkinsEduLeite / E+ via Getty Images


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Yes

New animal welfare scoring system could enable better-informed food and farming choices

Wed, 22/03/2023 - 00:01

This means that animal welfare can now, for the first time, be properly considered alongside other impacts of farming to help identify which farming systems are best.

This is vital for improving animal welfare in livestock production, at a time when demand for meat is rising globally and the way animals are farmed is changing - with concerns about the welfare of intensive and indoor systems.

Animal welfare assessments could also enable consumers to be better informed when choosing what to eat.

Britain has various labelling schemes for meat products to assure consumers that certain standards have been met. The team used their new system to test how the different labels compare in terms of animal welfare.

Farms producing ‘woodland’ labelled pork products scored best for pig welfare, followed by ‘organic’, then free-range, RSPCA assured, Red Tractor, and finally those with no certification.

“We have shown that it’s possible to reliably assess animal welfare on farms. This means decisions about which types of farm are better or worse for animal welfare can be based on proper calculations, rather than assumptions – as is currently the case,” said Dr Harriet Bartlett, first author of the study, who carried out this work while a researcher at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine. She is now a Research Associate in Sustainable Food Solutions at the University of Oxford.

Bartlett added: “Now animal welfare can be included in overall assessments of farm sustainability alongside other measures like carbon emissions and biodiversity impacts, so we can make better informed decisions about how we choose to farm and what we choose to eat.”

Coming up with an overall measurement of animal welfare has previously been difficult because of disagreement on which factors are most important. For example, is a health problem more important than a behaviour problem? What level of welfare is good enough?

The new system assesses the quality of an animal’s life through a wide-ranging set of welfare measurements, reflecting a range of concerns about welfare. The results can be integrated into a single score to enable comparison across farms.

This will enable exploration of trade-offs between animal welfare and other issues of concern to consumers, such as the impact of farming on the environment.

The results are published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Assessment of the pigs looked at everything from health problems like coughing, sneezing, and lameness, to the way they interacted: biting each other’s ears or tails, or engaging with their environment, for example.

Various scoring methods were tested - giving more or less weight to the different aspects of animal welfare - on 74 pig farming systems in the UK. The team were surprised to find that each method gave broadly the same overall result in terms of which farms, and types of farms, performed best and worst.

“Despite ongoing debate about how to measure animal welfare, we found we can identify which types of farms we might want to encourage and which we shouldn’t with reasonable consistency,” said Professor Andrew Balmford in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, who was involved in the study.

The new welfare measurements combine quality of life with length of life, and scores can be produced ‘per unit’ of production. The welfare scores can also allow several farms to be grouped together – for example when animals are kept on different farms at different growth stages.

“This work opens up possibilities for greater rolling out of welfare assessment scores in food labelling, including in other species as well as pigs. Until now, the methods available have made this impractical,” said Professor James Wood at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine, who was involved in the study.

The technique of ‘Life Cycle Assessment’ is widely used to quantify environmental impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions and land use, across all stages of farm animal production. But until now there hasn’t been a way of measuring animal welfare that enables valid comparisons across different farming systems, so Life Cycle Assessments do not include it and as a result, welfare concerns have sometimes been overlooked.

Food production accounts for over a quarter of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Making farming systems more sustainable, in the face of growing global demand for meat, is a major challenge for farmers and the government.

‘Woodland’ labelled pork is from farms that provide at least partial tree cover for the pigs, and ‘Organic’ provides outdoor access for the animals. The ‘RSPCA assured’ label is welfare focused, while ‘Free range’ is not a formal assurance, but typically refers to fully outdoor farming systems. Most UK pig farms produce ‘Red Tractor’ labelled pork, which has lower production costs – translating to a lower price for consumers.

This research was funded by the BBSRC, the Royal Society, MRC, and The Alborada Trust.

Reference

Bartlett, H. et al: ‘Advancing the quantitative characterisation of farm animal welfare.’ Proc Roy Soc B. March 2023. DOI 10.1098/rspb.2023.0120

Cambridge University scientists have come up with a system of measuring animal welfare that enables reliable comparison across different types of pig farming.

Harriet BartlettPigs on a farm


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YesLicence type: Attribution

Knowing your ants from your anteaters: Are wildlife documentaries showing us the ‘real’ natural world?

Wed, 15/03/2023 - 09:14

Wildlife documentaries miss an opportunity to highlight the diversity of nature by focusing too much on mammals and birds, according to a new study.

Remarkable squirting mussels captured on film

Sat, 11/03/2023 - 09:00

In spring, female mussels were seen moving to the water’s edge and anchoring into the riverbed, with their back ends raised above the waterline.

Then they squirted out regular water jets, which landed in the water up to a metre away. Squirting cycles lasted 3-6 hours.

This behaviour has never been seen in any other mussel species.

The jets disturb the river surface and attract fish. Mussel larvae in the jets can then attach to the gills of the fish and complete their metamorphosis into adults.

“Who'd have thought that a mussel, that doesn't even have a head or a brain, knows to move to the river margin and squirt jets of water back into the river during springtime? It’s amazing!” said Professor David Aldridge in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, lead author of the report published today in the journal Ecology.

Unlike other mussel species, Unio crassus has a limited range of suitable host fishes – including minnows and chub. These species were attracted to the falling water jets.

The researchers think the mussels squirt water jets to increase the chances of their larvae attaching to the right host fishes. By being squirted into the air and not the water, the larvae are propelled greater distances from the parent mussel.

The study was carried out during spring in the Biała Tarnowska River, Poland. Six squirts were collected from each mussel for analysis – which confirmed that they contained viable mussel larvae.

Before now, there was only anecdotal evidence of this behaviour. Some scientists thought the water jets might be a way for the mussels to expel faeces.

This behaviour could explain why Unio crassus is an endangered species. Climbing out of the water to squirt makes it vulnerable to floods, destruction of river margins, and predators like mink. And its need for specific host fishes links its survival to theirs.

Understanding how this species completes its life cycle is important for its conservation under changing environmental conditions.

Reference

Aldridge, D. C. et al: Fishing for hosts: larval spurting by the endangered thick-shelled river mussel, Unio crassus. Ecology, March 2023. DOI: 10.1002/ECY.4026 

Cambridge researchers have observed a highly unusual behaviour in the endangered freshwater mussel, Unio crassus.

 

Who'd have thought that a mussel, that doesn't even have a head or a brain, knows to move to the river margin and squirt jets of water back into the river during springtime?David Aldridge Spurting Mussel Movie Mussel squirting a water jet


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Yes

First wiring map of insect brain complete

Fri, 10/03/2023 - 08:49

This will help scientists to understand the basic principles by which signals travel through the brain at the neural level and lead to behaviour and learning.  

An organism's nervous system, including the brain, is made up of neurons that are connected to each other via synapses. Information in the form of chemicals passes from one neuron to another through these contact points.

The map of the 3016 neurons that make up the larva of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster’s brain, and the detailed circuitry of neural pathways within it, is known as a ‘connectome’.

This is the largest complete brain connectome ever to have been mapped. It is a huge advance on previous work to map very simple brain structures including the roundworm C. elegans, which only has several hundred neurons.

Imaging entire brains has until recently been extremely challenging. Now, technological advances allow scientists to image the entire brain of the fruit fly larvae relatively quickly using electron microscopy, and reconstruct the brain circuits from the resulting data.

The fruit fly larva has similar brain structures to the adult fruit fly and larger insects, and has a rich behavioural repertoire, including learning and action-selection.

“The way the brain circuit is structured influences the computations the brain can do. But, up until this point, we haven’t seen the structure of any brain except in very simple organisms,” said Professor Marta Zlatic at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB).

Zlatic led the research together with Professor Albert Cardona at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience and the MRC LMB, and Dr Michael Winding at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology. The study, which also involved collaborators from both the UK and the US, is published today in the journal Science.

She added: “Until now, the actual circuit patterns involved in most brain computations have been unknown. Now we can start gaining a mechanistic understanding of how the brain works.”

Current technology is not yet advanced enough to map the connectome of more complex animals such as large mammals. But because all brains involve networks of interconnected neurons, the researchers say that their new map will be a lasting reference for future studies of brain function in other animals.

“All brains of all species have to perform many complex behaviours: for example they all need to process sensory information, learn, choose food, and navigate their environment. In the same way that genes are conserved across the animal kingdom, I think that the basic circuit patterns that drive these fundamental behaviours will also be conserved,” said Zlatic.

To build a picture of the fruit fly larva connectome, the team used thousands of slices of the larva’s brain imaged with a high-resolution electron microscope, to reconstruct a map of the fly’s brain - and painstakingly annotated the connections between neurons. As well as mapping the 3016 neurons, they mapped an incredible 548,000 synapses.

The researchers also developed computational tools to identify likely pathways of information flow and different types of circuit patterns in the insect’s brain. They found that some of the structural features are similar to state-of-the-art deep learning architecture.

“The most challenging aspect of this work was understanding and interpreting what we saw. We were faced with a complex neural circuit with lots of structure. In collaboration with Professor Priebe and Professor Vogestein’s groups at Johns Hopkins University, we developed computational tools to predict the relevant behaviours from the structures. By comparing this biological system, we can potentially also inspire better artificial networks,” said Zlatic.

“This is an exciting and significant body of work by colleagues at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology and others,” said Jo Latimer, Head of Neurosciences and Mental Health at the Medical Research Council.

She added: “Not only have they mapped every single neuron in the insect’s brain, but they’ve also worked out how each neuron is connected. This is a big step forward in addressing key questions about how the brain works, particularly how signals move through the neurons and synapses leading to behaviour, and this detailed understanding may lead to therapeutic interventions in the future.”

The next step is to delve deeper to understand, for example, the brain circuitry required for specific behavioural functions, such as learning and decision making, and to look at activity in the whole connectome while the insect is doing things.

Adapted from a press release by the Medical Research Council

Reference

Winding, M. et al: ‘The connectome of an insect brain.’ Science, 10 March 2023. DOI: 10.1126/science.add9330 

Researchers have built the first ever map showing every single neuron and how they’re wired together in the brain of the fruit fly larva.

Now we can start gaining a mechanistic understanding of how the brain works.Marta Zlatic Map of the fruit fly brain


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Yes

Humanity’s quest to discover the origins of life in the universe

Wed, 08/03/2023 - 17:10

For thousands of years, humanity and science have contemplated the origins of life in the Universe. While today’s scientists are well-equipped with innovative technologies, humanity has a long way to go before we fully understand the fundamental aspects of what life is and how it forms.

“We are living in an extraordinary moment in history,” said Professor Didier Queloz, who directs the Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe at Cambridge and ETH Zurich’s Centre for Origin and Prevalence of Life. While still a doctoral student, Queloz was the first to discover an exoplanet – a planet orbiting a star other than our Sun. The discovery led to him being awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics.

In the three decades since Queloz’s discovery, scientists have discovered more than 5,000 exoplanets. Trillions more are predicted to exist within our Milky Way galaxy alone. Each exoplanet discovery raises more questions about how and why life emerged on Earth and whether it exists elsewhere in the universe.

Technological advancements, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and interplanetary missions to Mars, give scientists access to huge volumes of new observations and data. Sifting through all this information to understand the emergence of life in the universe will take a big, multidisciplinary network.

In collaboration with chemist and fellow Nobel Laureate Jack Szostak and astronomer Dimitar Sasselov, Queloz announced the formation of such a network at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Washington, DC. The Origins Federation brings together researchers studying the origins of life at Cambridge, ETH Zurich, Harvard University, and The University of Chicago.

Together, Federation scientists will explore the chemical and physical processes of living organisms and environmental conditions hospitable to supporting life on other planets. “The Origins Federation builds upon a long-standing collegial relationship strengthened through a shared collaboration in a recently completed project with the Simons Foundation,” said Queloz.

These collaborations support the work of researchers like Dr Emily Mitchell from Cambridge's Department of Zoology. Mitchell is co-director of Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe and an ecological time traveller. She uses field-based laser-scanning and statistical mathematical ecology on 580-million-year-old fossils of deep-sea organisms to determine the driving factors that influence the macro-evolutionary patterns of life on Earth.

Speaking at AAAS, Mitchell took participants back to four billion years ago when Earth’s early atmosphere - devoid of oxygen and steeped in methane – showed its first signs of microbial life. She spoke about how life survives in extreme environments and then evolves offering potential astrobiological insights into the origins of life elsewhere in the universe.

“As we begin to investigate other planets through the Mars missions, biosignatures could reveal whether or not the origin of life itself and its evolution on Earth is just a happy accident or part of the fundamental nature of the universe, with all its biological and ecological complexities,” said Mitchell.

The founding centres of the Origins Federation are The Origins of Life Initiative (Harvard University), Centre for Origin and Prevalence of Life (ETH Zurich), the Center for the Origins of Life (University of Chicago), and the Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe (University of Cambridge).

The Origins Federation will pursue scientific research topics of interest to its founding centres with a long-term perspective and common milestones. It will strive to establish a stable funding platform to create opportunities for creative and innovative ideas, and to enable young scientists to make a career in this new field. The Origins Federation is open to new members, both centres and individuals, and is committed to developing the mechanisms and structure to achieve that aim.

“The pioneering work of Professor Queloz has allowed astronomers and physicists to make advances that were unthinkable only a few years ago, both in the discovery of planets which could host life and the development of techniques to study them,” said Professor Andy Parker, head of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. “But now we need to bring the full range of our scientific understanding to bear in order to understand what life really is and whether it exists on these newly discovered planets. The Cavendish Laboratory is proud to host the Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe and to partner with the Origins Federation to lead this quest.”

Scientists from the University of Cambridge, ETH Zurich, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago have founded the Origins Federation, which will advance our understanding of the emergence and early evolution of life, and its place in the cosmos.

ETH Zurich/NASAL-R: Emily Mitchell, Didier Queloz, Kate Adamal, Carl Zimmer


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Yes

Voluntary UK initiatives to phase out toxic lead shot for pheasant hunting have had little impact

Mon, 27/02/2023 - 07:00

The pledge, made in 2020 by nine major UK game shooting and rural organisations, aims to protect the natural environment and ensure a safer supply of game meat for consumers. Lead is toxic even in very small concentrations, and discarded shot from hunting poisons and kills tens of thousands of the UK’s wild birds each year.

A Cambridge-led team of 17 volunteers bought whole pheasants from butchers, game dealers and supermarkets across the UK in 2022-23. They dissected the birds at home and recovered embedded shotgun pellets from 235 of the 356 pheasant carcasses.

The main metal present in each shotgun pellet was revealed through laboratory analysis - conducted at the Environmental Research Institute, University of the Highlands and Islands, UK. Lead was the main element in 94% of the recovered shot pellets; the remaining 6% were predominantly composed of steel or a metal called bismuth.

The results are published today in the Conservation Evidence Journal.

At the request of the Defra Secretary of State, the UK Health & Safety Executive assessed the risks to the environment and human health posed by lead in shots and bullets. Their report proposes that the use of lead ammunition be banned, and this is currently under review. While remaining committed to phasing out lead shot voluntarily, many shooting organisations do not support the proposed regulatory restrictions.

“If UK game hunters are going to phase out lead shot voluntarily, they’re not doing very well so far,” said Professor Rhys Green in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, first author of the study.

He added: “The small decrease in the proportion of birds shot with lead in the latest UK shooting season is nowhere near on track to achieve a complete transition to non-toxic ammunition in the next two years.”

This is the third consecutive year the team has conducted the analysis. Their latest study shows a small improvement on the 2021/22 and 2021/20 shooting seasons, when over 99% of the pheasants studied were shot using lead ammunition.

In separate initiatives, some suppliers of game meat for human consumption - including Waitrose & Partners - have voluntarily announced their intention to stop selling game killed using lead shot. An assurance scheme has also been launched to encourage suppliers and retailers to facilitate the transition.

The team did not find any pheasant on sale in Waitrose in 2022/23 despite repeated visits to 15 different stores. Waitrose staff reported that the company had not been sufficiently assured by any supplier in 2022/23 that all pheasants had been killed using non-lead ammunition.

“Waitrose is the only retailer we know of fully complying with the pledge not to supply pheasant killed using lead, but it’s only managing this by not selling any pheasant at all,” said Green.

Steel shotgun pellets are a practical alternative to lead, and the vast majority of shotguns can use them or other safe lead-free alternatives. Shooting magazines and UK shooting organisations have communicated positive messages for three years about the effectiveness and practicality of non-lead shotgun ammunition.

Shooting and rural organisations - including the British Association for Shooting and Conservation and the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust - have consistently provided information and detailed guidance to encourage the transition from lead to non-lead ammunition since 2020.

“Denmark banned lead shotgun ammunition in 1996, and a successful transition was made to steel and bismuth. It’s safer for the environment and gives game shooting a better image,” said Green.

A previous study led by Green found that pheasants killed by lead shot contain many fragments of lead too small to detect by eye or touch, and too distant from the shot to be removed without throwing away a large proportion of otherwise useable meat. This means that eating pheasant killed using lead shot is likely to expose consumers to raised levels of lead in their diet, even if the meat is carefully prepared to remove whole shotgun pellets and the most damaged tissue.

Lead has been banned from use in paint and petrol for decades. It is toxic to humans when absorbed by the body and there is no known safe level of exposure. Lead accumulates in the body over time and can cause long-term harm, including increased risk of cardiovascular disease and kidney disease in adults. Lead is known to lower IQ in young children, and affect the neurological development of unborn babies.

Funding from the RSPB and Waitrose supported this work.

Reference

Green, R.E. et al: ‘Voluntary transition by hunters and game-meat suppliers from lead to non-lead ammunition: changes in practice after three years.’ Conservation Evidence Journal, February 2023. DOI 10.52201/CEJ19/SAFD8835

Three years into a five-year pledge to completely phase out lead shot in UK game hunting, a Cambridge study finds that 94% of pheasants on sale for human consumption were killed using lead.

If UK game hunters are going to phase out lead shot voluntarily, they’re not doing very well so farRhys GreenAndy Hay, RSPB imagesPheasant


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YesLicence type: Attribution-Noncommerical

‘Antisocial’ damselfish are scaring off cleaner fish customers – and this could contribute to coral reef breakdown

Thu, 23/02/2023 - 09:00

The meal of choice for the Caribbean cleaner fish, the sharknose goby, is a platter of parasites, dead tissue, scales and mucus picked off the bodies of other fishes. By removing these morsels, gobies are offering their ‘cleaning services’ to other marine life – a famous example of a mutually beneficial relationship between species.

But new research from the University of Cambridge and Cardiff University shows that when gobies inadvertently set up shop within the territories of aggressive damselfish, damselfish scare off the gobies’ ‘choosy client customers’.

The study, published today in Behavioral Ecology, is an example of a largely unexplored phenomenon: a mutually beneficial relationship in nature being disrupted by a third party. 

Sharknose gobies work solo or band together and set up a ‘cleaning station’: a fixed location in a particular nook of coral reef, where other marine life burdened by parasites go to take advantage of the gobies’ dietary needs.

“Gobies wait at cleaning stations for customers to visit, similar to shops. And with customers, come the parasites,” said Dr Katie Dunkley, a behavioural ecologist at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology. “In return for providing a cleaning service the gobies receive a payment of food.”

Customers are varied and include parrotfish, surgeonfish and butterflyfish. These choosy client fish shop around, visiting different cleaning stations open for business. If interested, they will adopt a stationary pose that makes a clean more likely – typically a head or tail-stand position with all fins flared.

During a clean – which could last from a few seconds to several minutes – gobies make physical contact with the customer, removing parasites and other dead body tissue. This is known as ‘tactile stimulation’ and, as well as getting rid of parasites, it may act as a massage reducing the customer’s stress, says Dunkley. Previous research has established the importance of cleaners – their removal led to fewer numbers and less variety of fish species on reefs.

“Cleaning stations act as a marketplace, and if customers stop showing up, over time a cleaning station is going to go out of business,” said Dunkley.

Five researchers spent over 34 hours observing cleaning stations on a shallow fringing reef in Tobago over a period of six weeks. Equipped with snorkels and waterproof paper they recorded underwater interactions for 10-minute periods from 8am-5:15pm each day.

They found that client fish were less likely to go to cleaning stations that were more often patrolled by damselfish, who scared ‘intruders’ away. 

“I thought that damselfish might play a role as they visit cleaning stations too – although don’t often get cleaned – but to see just how influential they were was startling.

“Damselfish act like farmers as they weed out algae they don’t want, to encourage their preferred algae to grow. Damselfish are protective over their algal territories, and these antisocial fish spend a lot of time patrolling their territories, scaring away intruders through biting, attacking, chasing or threatening displays.”

Damselfish’s territories cover up to 70% of some reefs. On a healthy coral reef, a balance is maintained between algae and coral. But as reefs deteriorate and overfishing intensifies, algae thrive. As reefs deteriorate damselfish may become more common and/or aggressive – leading to fewer species receiving the goby cleaning treatment needed to keep them healthy, says Dunkley. This could ultimately contribute to the breakdown of delicate ecosystems supported by reefs.

“In future we’d like to tease out the motives of damselfish. Are they driven by wanting to protect their algae farms or monopolise cleaning stations?” said Dunkley, a Charles Darwin and Galapagos Islands Fund Junior Research Fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge.

“Just as humans are connected through family, friends and colleagues, all fish are connected to each other. It’s important that we don’t just look at relationships in isolated bubbles. We need to step back and see how all fish are connected so that we can protect ecosystems like coral reefs.”

The study was funded by a Natural Environment Research Council GW4+ studentship and Christ’s College University of Cambridge Galapagos Islands Fund (both awarded to first author, Katie Dunkley). Last author, James Herbert-Read, was supported by the Whitten Lectureship in Marine Biology, and a Swedish Research Council Grant (2018–04076).

Dunkley et al, The presence of territorial damselfish predicts choosy client species richness at cleaning stations, Behavioral Ecology, DOI: doi.org/10.1093/beheco/arac122

Damselfish have been discovered to disrupt ‘cleaning services’ vital to the health of reefs. And climate change may mean this is only likely to get worse.

"We need to step back and see how all fish are connected so that we can protect ecosystems like coral reefs."Dr Katie Dunkley


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Yes

Small-scale octopus fisheries can provide sustainable source of vital nutrients for tropical coastal communities

Thu, 26/01/2023 - 15:23

Research led by Cambridge scientists, and published in Nature Food, shows that tropical small-scale octopus fisheries offer a sustainable source of food and income to communities that face food insecurity, where the prevalence of undernourishment can exceed 40% and stunting in children under five commonly exceeds 30%. 

The high micronutrient density of octopus - including vitamin B12, copper, iron and selenium - means that human populations only need to eat a small quantity to supplement a diet primarily comprising staple plant crops. The new research shows that just a small amount of production in a tropical small-scale octopus fishery can deliver the micronutrient needs to a relatively large number of people.

The fast growth and adaptability of octopuses to environmental change can also facilitate sustainable production, and catch methods in the fisheries - primarily consisting of hand techniques, small-scale lines, pots and traps - are less environmentally harmful than those of large industrial fishing.

Dr David Willer, lead author, from the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow at Murray Edwards College, said: “Worldwide, nearly half of people’s calories come from just three crops – rice, wheat, and maize - which are high energy, but relatively low in key nutrients. Just a small serving of something very, very micronutrient rich, like octopus, can fill critical nutritional gaps. And, of course, if you get better nutrition as a child you’re much more physically and mentally prepared for later life, which can lead to better jobs, better employment and better social development.

“These small fisheries also provide an income and a livelihood, often to women whose economic status is enhanced as a result. Small-scale octopus fisheries revolve around local communities and potentially that gives them a greater resilience against market pressures and other disruptions to global food supply and trade.”

Small-scale fisheries, across all sectors, currently provide more than two-thirds of the fish and seafood destined for human consumption worldwide, and employ over 90% of fishers involved in capture fisheries. 47% of the workforce employed in these fisheries are women.

Based on a global review of data from global seafood databases and published literature, and written in partnership with science-led social enterprise Blue Ventures, the research found that in many cases tropical small-scale octopus fisheries are operating using relatively low impact techniques, and when combined with local and national management approaches can provide a more sustainable source of seafood. Successful approaches include periodic fishery closures, size restrictions, and licences. The need for knowledge transfer of fishing gears is also crucial so that the message on fish sustainability and securing the food supply and economic stability is spread widely. 
 

Undernourished coastal communities in the tropics - where children’s growth can be stunted by a lack of micronutrients – can get the vitamins and minerals they need from sustainable small-scale octopus fisheries, say researchers.

Just a small serving of something very, very micronutrient rich, like octopus, can fill critical nutritional gaps.Dr David Willer, Department of ZoologyBlue Ventures


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Yes

Paying farmers to create woodland and wetland is the most cost-effective way to hit UK environment targets

Tue, 20/12/2022 - 09:58

Incentivising farmers to restore some land as habitats for nature could deliver UK climate and biodiversity targets at half the taxpayer cost of integrating nature into land managed for food production, according to a new study published today in the British Ecological Society journal People and Nature.

The research, led by the universities of Cambridge, Leeds and Glasgow, provides the first evidence for the taxpayer savings offered by focusing food production in certain areas to allow the creation of new woods, wetland and scrub habitats on some of the land currently used for farming.

The study suggests that this 'land sparing' approach would cost just 48% of the funds required to achieve the same outcomes for biodiversity and the climate through an approach known as 'land sharing', where conservation measures get mixed into farming by adding hedgerows to fields, reducing pesticides, and so on – all of which lowers food yield.

Additionally, researchers say that trying to share land with nature through making farming more wildlife-friendly would see the UK lose 30% more of its food production capacity than if farmers are encouraged to spare portions of land entirely for creating semi-natural habitats.

The UK Government has legally binding commitments to reverse nature declines by 2030 and reach net-zero carbon by 2050. Sparing land for habitats could hit these targets at half the cost of trying to farm on land shared with nature, say researchers.

“Currently, only a fraction of the £3.2 billion of public money annually paid to farmers goes on biodiversity and climate mitigation, some £600m a year,” said Lydia Collas, who led the study as part of her PhD at Cambridge University’s Department of Zoology.

“Almost all this fraction of funding supports land-sharing approaches that may do little to benefit species or sequester carbon, but do typically reduce food yields. Until now there has been no research on whether this is the most cost-effective solution to delivering environmental targets.”

Cambridge’s Prof Andrew Balmford, senior author of the study, said: “Greater incentives for farmers to create woodlands and wetlands will deliver for wild species and climate mitigation at half the cost to the taxpayer of the land-sharing approach that currently receives ten times more public funding.”

The researchers say their findings – presented at the British Ecological Society’s annual meeting by study co-author Prof Nick Hanley, an environmental economist from the University of Glasgow – should inform the current Brexit-prompted rethink of England’s new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMs).

The Landscape Recovery strand of the ELM is set to receive under 1% of the overall budget next year – a dramatic underspend considering the economic, environmental and food security benefits of a habitat creation approach, argue the scientists.

They say that the revamped Countryside Stewardship Scheme would also deliver far better value for money if it supports farmers to create habitats for nature instead of repeating the largely 'wildlife-friendly' approach of the scheme in its current form. 

“If a two-fold cost saving was identified in other government policy areas, such as health, there would be an outcry,” said Collas, “particularly in the face of the worst recession in a generation.”

The researchers conducted a choice experiment study with 118 farmers responsible for 1.7% of all England’s arable land, asking them to estimate the payments they would require to implement land-sharing practices or habitat-creating 'sparing' approaches on their land.

Farmers chose from a variety of agricultural approaches, nature interventions and, crucially, payment rates. The study also considered the government's costs of administering and monitoring these schemes.

The team used three bird species – yellowhammers, bullfinches and lapwings – as a proxy for effects on biodiversity, as well a range of ways farmers could help slow climate change, such as woodland and hedgerow creation.

On average, farmers in the experiment accepted lower payments per hectare for land sharing practices. However, habitat creation schemes deliver far greater environmental outcomes per hectare, so creating woodlands, wetlands and scrublands would deliver the same overall biodiversity and climate mitigation benefits at half the cost to the taxpayer.

“We found that enough farmers are willing to substantially change their business to benefit from payments for public goods in the form of habitats, provided the government rewards them properly for doing so,” said Balmford.

Collas, now a Policy Analyst at Green Alliance, added: “Existing evidence already shows that semi-natural habitats deliver far more biodiversity and climate mitigation per unit area, and creating them has far less impact on food production than meeting targets through land sharing.

“This evidence is dismissed when thinking about agricultural policy in the UK because of an untested assumption that farmers are unwilling to create natural habitat. We now have evidence showing this assumption is wrong.”

Study of farmer preferences shows that turning whole areas of farmland into habitats comes with half the price tag of integrating nature into productive farmland, if biodiversity and carbon targets are to be met.

Semi-natural habitats deliver far more biodiversity and climate mitigation per unit areaLydia CollasGetty imagesDrone view of agricultural field - a tractor is baling hay next to woodland


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Yes

‘Cocktail’ vaccines could offer increased protection against future COVID-19 variants of concern

Wed, 14/12/2022 - 16:40

In research published in Nature Communications, scientists show that the omicron variant of the virus is immunologically distinct from other variants such as the vaccine variant and the alpha and delta variants – that is, exposure to it has a different effect on the neutralising antibody response and hence protection to other variants. But also, sub-variants of omicron are themselves distinct from each other. Their research further suggests that a combination of infection plus vaccination could provide increased protection against future variants.

Since SARS-CoV-2 was first identified in 2020, new variants of the virus have emerged as its genetic code evolves. Some of these variants threaten to spread faster, be more virulent or evade the protection of the vaccine – these are known as ‘variants of concern’.

Antonia Netzl, a PhD student at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, together with colleagues at Cambridge and Innsbruck, analysed data on people’s immune responses to different variants and vaccinations. They used these to create ‘antigenic maps’ and ‘antibody landscapes’ to explore the differences between variants.

A more recent variant of concern is the omicron variant, but since its emergence in December 2021 several sub-lineages have evolved, including BA.1, BA.2, BA.4, BA.5, and BA.2.12.1. Of these, BA.5 became the dominant variant in many countries earlier this year, though new dominant variants have subsequently supplanted it.

Netzl and colleagues found, using their maps, that not only was omicron immunologically distinct from alpha and delta, but its sub-variants BA.1, BA.2 and BA.5 were also distinct from each other. The antibody landscapes, an illustration of people’s immune profile, allowed the researchers to see how vaccination and/or infection with another variant increased virus neutralisation against other viruses.

Netzl, a Gates Cambridge Scholar, said: “We found that people who had been exposed to BA.1 were better protected against BA.2, but the reverse wasn’t true.

“But the good news was that we also found that two distinct exposures – for example, vaccination plus infection with a different variant – increased antibody levels against all variants. So, people who had been vaccinated and then infected with delta, for example, were better protected against omicron than those who had only been vaccinated or infected and not both.”

Netzl says this suggests that an update of the vaccine variant will be beneficial for increasing antibody levels and thereby offering some protection against all currently circulating variants as well as yet-unknown variants.

“Our work suggests that an update of the vaccine variant will be beneficial for increasing antibody levels and thereby protection against all currently circulating variants. The bivalent vaccines, which contain the original prototype variant and an omicron variant in a single vaccine dose, could provide this increased protection.”

The findings are supported by clinical trials and have already been put into practice with the roll-out of the bivalent Prototype+omicron BA.4/5 and Prototype+omicron BA.1 vaccines. 

Although infection by multiple different variants gives the unvaccinated protection too, Netzl points out that vaccinations offer effective protection and reduce the severity of infection.

“People should still make sure they get themselves vaccinated, even if they have already had COVID once. Vaccination is important for boosting our immune response and thereby reducing the risk of infection and symptom severity.”

Netzl said the research, alongside the real-world clinical trials, gives a strong basis to the investigations in vaccine development and design.

This research was carried out at the University of Cambridge and the Janine Kimpel Group at the University of Innsbruck. The co-lead authors were Antonia Netzl and Annika Rössler.

Reference
Rössler, A, Netzl, A, et al. BA.2 and BA.5 omicron differ immunologically from both BA.1 omicron and pre-omicron variants. Nat Comm; 13 Dec 2022; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-35312-3

COVID-19 vaccinations that combine two or more distinct variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus could offer protection against both current and future ‘variants of concern’, say scientists at the University of Cambridge and Medical University of Innsbruck.

Our work suggests that an update of the vaccine variant will be beneficial for increasing antibody levels and thereby protection against all currently circulating variantsAntonia NetzlSamuelFrancisJohnsonCoronavirus


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YesLicence type: Public Domain

Protecting Europe’s seabirds

Thu, 08/12/2022 - 16:19

Numerous European seabirds are at risk from climate change, according to new research led by ZSL (The Zoological Society of London) in collaboration with the University of Cambridge.

Researchers have published a first-of-its-kind conservation guide to protecting the 47 species that breed along the Atlantic coastline; offering hope for the future of these important marine birds, by assessing their species-specific needs and laying out the actions needed to preserve each one.

ZSL Institute of Zoology post-doctoral fellow, Henry Häkkinen, who led the production of the guidelines, said: “It’s unthinkable that the Atlantic puffin, one of Europe’s most treasured seabirds, could disappear from our shores by the end of the century – alongside other important marine bird species.

“Seabirds are one of the most threatened groups of birds in the world, with many already seeing rapid global declines due to the impacts of human activity and climate change, including changes to food availability, extreme weather conditions and the loss of breeding grounds.

“These birds face double the challenges as they breed on land but rely on the sea for survival; by living across these two worlds, they are essential to both ecosystems and give us a glimpse into the health of wildlife in otherwise hard-to-monitor areas of the ocean – meaning their loss would impact countless other species and their conservation.”

The two-year project to create the guidelines gathered evidence from more than 80 conservationists and policymakers across 15 European countries, alongside carefully collated information available from scientific papers across 10 different languages.

The pioneering European collaboration is the first to co-develop guidelines in this way, with the team hoping to scale up the project to map the risks to seabirds on a global scale.  

“Seabirds are migratory, flying vast distances overseas and oceans, and so to truly enhance conservation efforts we need to understand how climate change is altering their environment across their entire range. 

“It’s essential to develop strong conservation measures to protect these birds against the climate crisis, but this requires species-specific understanding of the threats that they face. For some birds, like puffins, we have a strong grasp of how climate change impacts them, but for many species, such as eider ducks and ivory gulls, this knowledge is severely lacking. These gaps need to be urgently addressed for us to help these birds to survive.” 

Project lead, ZSL Senior Research Fellow Dr Nathalie Pettorelli added: “The challenges posed by rapid changes in climatic conditions require efficient coordination between science, policy and advocacy to ensure key questions are given research priority and effective conservation actions can be deployed in areas where they are most needed. These seabird conservation guidelines – and the process behind them – provide a vital and transferable framework that can help align efforts to prioritise and implement evidence-based climate change adaptation practices to safeguard a future for the species most at risk. 

“The time to act is now if we are to buffer species from the impacts of climate change.”  

The guidelines will be made available to all conservationists working with seabirds across Europe.

Article adapted from a press release by ZSL.

New conservation guide launched to protect European seabirds at risk from climate change 

The time to act is now if we are to buffer species from the impacts of climate changeNathalie PettorelliSeppo HäkkinenA group of puffins on a cliff at the Farne Islands by Seppo Häkkinen


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Yes

A new chapter in the history of evolution: Two-million-year-old DNA

Wed, 07/12/2022 - 16:17

Discovery of world’s oldest DNA breaks record by one million years.

The future of farming: from eating insects to urban agriculture 

Wed, 07/12/2022 - 12:50

The Entrepreneurship Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School is supporting new ventures to improve sustainability in agriculture to meet the demands of a growing global population.