Conservationists: Mark and Morphic

Friday 13th May 2016
Tree & Web of Life courtesy

Tony Martin, Professor of Animal Conservation at Dundee University is named "Conservationist of the Year" in recognition of exceptional leadership with the world’s largest rodent eradication operation. Co-author of a new study, Professor Tim Guilford Department of Zoology at Oxford explains, “If fishing lines are set at night, Europe's most endangered seabird, the Balearic shearwater, (fewer than 3,200 breeding pairs, decline roughly 14% a year) doesn't run the risk of being entangled by nets - that have the seabird "on the road to extinction." Now animal and bird data can be successfully assessed using a newly developed Google "Images App Morphic" to describe geographical variation in visible traits of organisms.

Director of both the University’s Centre for Remote Environments and the South Georgia Heritage Trust, Professor Martin (right) received the prestigious award from the ZSL (Zoological Society of London). He leads the Trust’s Habitat Restoration Project, which seeks to reverse two centuries of devastation caused by rats,  that threatens the globally important seabird sanctuary of South Georgia, a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic. 

Since arrival on the island as stowaways on whaling and sealing vessels, rats have preyed on ground-nesting seabirds, resulting in dramatic loss of the island’s diversity and millions of birds,  some species unable to breed on the main island. Successful eradication of rodents would allow an estimated 100 million seabirds to recolonise the archipelago and save the South Georgia pipit, which can only be found on the island, from eventual extinction.

Project planning began in earnest in 2007, and baiting work was done in three phases - in 2011, 2013 and 2015 - by an international team operating in the hostile conditions imposed by South Georgia’s notoriously extreme and fickle weather.  Over the course of the operation, 336 tonnes of bait were dropped by the Trust’s helicopters, using GPS tracking systems to keep an accurate record of bait coverage, as well as hand-baiting, over more than 1,000 square kilometres of mountainous terrain. Monitoring work to date indicates that the first phase of baiting was successful, and a large survey at the end of 2017 will assess whether the areas baited during the second and third phases were similarly effective in removing every single rodent.  Fundraising efforts to support this vital survey work are continuing.

Professor Martin said, “I am immensely proud to receive ZSL’s Conservationist of the Year award, and do so on behalf of the many people who contributed to this landmark project. It was a privilege to lead such a remarkable team of people, 'Team Rat' as we became known, on this breath-taking sub-Antarctic island. This has been a huge and challenging enterprise - by far the largest and most ambitious of its kind ever attempted. It has depended on the expert advice and skills of people from all over the world, and the financial support of thousands of South Georgia enthusiasts with a passion to restore the island to its glorious condition, prior to first human footsteps.  It’s gratifying that there are already signs of recovery on South Georgia, thanks to our combined efforts. South Georgia pipits are already singing and breeding in places where they have not been seen within living memory, a heartening indication that the rats have gone from that locality, at least!”

 Even before taking on the challenge of SGHT’s Habitat Restoration Project, Professor Martin was no stranger to the tempestuous sub-Antarctic weather and iconic wildlife of South Georgia. He spent many years as a cetacean biologist with the Sea Mammal Research Unit, before transferring to the British Antarctic Survey in a broader role, leading investigations of the Southern Ocean foodweb. This research took him from the tropics to the high Arctic to the sub-Antarctic, and South Georgia in particular. 

He joined the University of Dundee in 2010, from where he was seconded to SGHT. He has also been a UK delegate to the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission since 1979. A keen seabird biologist and passionate about conservation, Martin was to prove the ideal candidate to lead the Trust’s ambitious and globally significant eradication project.

Professor Jonathan Baillie, ZSL Director of Conservation Programmes, added, “On behalf of ZSL, we’re delighted to recognise Professor Martin’s invaluable work with the Society’s prestigious Conservationist of the Year award. South Georgia is a special place and one of the South Atlantic’s last great havens for wildlife, so his efforts to preserve its fragile ecosystems embody the values this award was established to celebrate.”

Yet rodents too are under threat



New research shows that  European leaders have the power to save Europe's most threatened seabird — the Balearic shearwater — by creating a law that ensures commercial fishing lines are set only at night, when the critically endangered Balearic shearwater doesn't dive for food. 

If fishing lines are set at night, then Europe's most endangered seabird doesn't run the risk of being entangled by nets. In fact, entanglement is a driving force that has the seabird "on the road to extinction" with fewer than 30,000 birds left in the wild (and only 3,200 breeding pairs)  Their population is currently declining by 14% each year and at the current rate, the Balearic shearwater will go extinct within 60 years.   Take action and sign Care2 petition Fortunately, European politicians can tackle this major threat by making the simple switch. Professor Tim Guilford of the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford explains, "The science shows just how serious the problem is, but also there is a technically simple solution — the setting of demersal longlines at night.

Animals caught on camera by amateur photographers and posted on the web could become an important new tool for studying evolution and other ecological questions, researchers from South Africa have found. Their study – the first of its kind – is published today in Methods in Ecology and Evolution. The web application is a free to use, open-source  available at Morphs.

Authors Gabriella Leighton, Pierre Hugo, Alexandre Roulin and Arjun Amar (2016). 'Just Google it: assessing the use of Google Images to describe geographical variation in visible traits of organisms' is published in Methods in Ecology and Evolution .

Colour polymorphism – when a species has two or more colour types – has fascinated biologists since Darwin. The occurrence of these different colour types often varies geographically, providing a useful way of studying how different colour morphs – or phenotypes – evolve. But the fieldwork needed to collect these polymorphism data is time consuming and expensive.  Dr Arjun Amar (left) and (right) student Gabriella Leighton from UCT (University of Cape Town) wondered if ecologists could use the thousands of animal images posted on the internet instead.

To discover whether or not these photographs could accurately substitute for fieldwork, they used Google Images to find photographs of four species – black bears in western North America, barn owls worldwide, black sparrowhawks in South Africa, and hooded or carrion crows in Europe. As well as black, the bears also occur as cream, cinnamon, chocolate brown or bicolour varieties. Barn owls vary from rusty red to pure white, while black sparrowhawks are either completely dark or have a white breast.

Once considered subspecies, black and grey hooded crows and all black carrion crows are now thought to be two separate species with a narrow, clear-cut hybrid zone where the two meet and interbreed. In the UK, this zone runs straight through Inverness, where hooded crows occur to the north of the city and carrion crows to the south.

“We selected these species because accurate scientific data already exists on the distribution of their different colour morphs, allowing us to compare and assess the accuracy of our new method based on Google Images,” Dr Amar explains.

Based on more than 4,800 Google Images pictures of the four species, the results prove that this method can produce results that are as accurate as fieldwork.

While anyone could do this, handling and scoring so many images is logistically challenging. So the ecologists teamed up with computer scientist Pierre Hugo who developed a new web application called Morphic, which allows the data to be collected more efficiently.

According to Leighton, lead author of the paper: “Very pleasingly, the method worked: we were able to create a map of the different colour varieties and, most importantly, the pattern of this map matched very well the known pattern of the colour varieties. And whereas our data took only days or weeks to collate from my office, these other data had often taken years of labour intensive fieldwork or visits to museums worldwide.”

The new technique opens up a world wide web of possibilities for ecologists, from migration and diet to birds' moulting patterns and the age structures of animal populations in different areas. It works best for species that are of interest to photographers, so are very well photographed, as well as easy to recognise and categorise. Dr Amar is already using it to study the colour patterns of other species, including common buzzards and tawny owl morphs in Europe, Swainson's hawks in North America and augur buzzards across East Africa.

“When we describe our method, other researchers always come up with different ideas for their own study system, so we hope they will use it to answer questions of their own that we haven't even imagined. We have made the web application freely available and can’t wait to see what others come up with,” he says.

And if more photographers geo-tag their images with location and dates, their pictures could be even more valuable for ecology in future.

“Although not part of this study, in future this approach might allow us to explore how phenotypes change over time. We know that phenotypes are often linked to specific weather conditions, for example, more dark morphs occur in wetter areas. Thus, with climate change occurring there are many predictions suggesting that occurrence of the different colour morphs might also change, and our new technique might allow this to be investigated,” Dr Amar says.

Courtesy: Barn owls Copyright Alexandre Roulin. Spirit bear & Black bear Copyright Ignacio Yufera

Male zebra finches can sing, but the females are faster at learning to discriminate sounds. Leiden Univeristy researchers publish their findings in the scientific journal Animal Behaviour. This conclusion is reached  after a meta-analysis of different experiments with the songbirds. Combining the results of 14 separate studies gave  a population of 87 birds to work from. The aim of the research was to find out why some birds could recognise sounds faster than others.

Go and no-go
The zebra finches heard one of two sound types after pecking at an LED sensor. If, after hearing the right sound (the ‘go sound’) – they pecked on the sensor again, they received a reward. Pecking on the sensor after hearing the so-called no-go sound gave them no reward, and even ‘punished’ birds by leaving them in the dark for a short while.

Dr Pralle Kriengwatana: ‘Our meta-analysis shows that female zebra finches learn to discriminate sounds faster, which is surprising considering that females don’t sing. On the basis that male songbirds usually sing more than female songbirds, scientists have long assumed that the males must also be better at recognising and learning song (and perhaps also other sounds). It now seems that sex differences in producing complex sounds do not necessarily correlate exactly with the ability to perceive and discriminate these complex sounds.'

The scientists are still in the dark about the reasons why females learn better than males, although the female hormone oestrogen may play a role. According to Kriengwatana, further research is needed to determine the precise cause of the sex differences.

The researchers also discovered that the zebra finches try out different theories in their efforts to understand the test. In the first instance some birds stop pecking as soon as they hear new sounds, and then start pecking after each sound (both ‘go’ and ‘no-go’). Once they realise that pecking after the ‘no-go’ sound does not bring them any reward, they peck much less after this sound. The other group of birds also initially stop pecking, and then slowly but surely start pecking on the LED sensor again after both sounds. As soon as they understand that the ‘go' sound gives them food, they peck more after hearing this sound.

Not surprisingly  family size and body mass also seem to play a role. The finches from larger nests learned to distinguish sounds faster than birds with fewer siblings. The same applied for finches that weighed more at the age when they learned to eat by themselves and stop relying on parents for food. One explanation could be that more contact with other birds and better health may promote the faster recognition of sounds.





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