Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Helping to restore India’s rivers

Scientists from the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) were in India recently (10-14 November 2014) to participate in intensive discussions with researchers from the National Institute of Hydrology in Roorkee relating to work to restore India's rivers. Mike Acreman, Cedric Laize, Harry Dixon and Nathan Rickards of CEH gave a number of presentations and took part in knowledge exchange discussions with Indian counterparts led by Dr Sharad Jain to explore how CEH expertise can help develop the scientific capacity and strengthen the local skills needed to carry out such research.

Ganges near Haridwar. Photo: Mike Acreman
The health of India’s rivers is a critical issue. Water is essential for the future well-being of the people of India and the country’s economy. Past water management has focused largely on flood protection and on delivering water for irrigated agriculture, domestic supply and hydropower generation. Stress on water resources will increase as India’s population is expected to rise from the current 1.21 billion (2011 census) to 1.6 billion by 2050.

Historically water has been supplied from major rivers. The largest and most iconic Indian river is the Ganges, which is also considered sacred by the Hindus that make up 80% of the Indian population. Despite this the Ganges has become depleted of water and highly polluted by raw sewage and industrial waste leading to loss of species, such as the river dolphin, and making it unsuitable for religious uses. The Government of India is now preparing plans to clean the rivers, beginning with the River Ganges and the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has announced funding for the Namami Ganga project of 20 billion Rupees (£0.2 billion). Restoring appropriate flows to the river will be essential to bringing the rivers back to life alongside reducing pollution.

Gauging station on the river Ganges. Photo: Mike Acreman
CEH is supporting the Indian National Institute of Hydrology to produce computer models of the Ganges and other rivers to understand the implications of allocating water to different uses and to define the flows needed to achieve levels of river health. CEH project leader Prof Mike Acreman told us that “restoring the Ganges and other Indian rivers to good health will take a long time, but we hope that the enthusiasm and local knowledge of Indian water scientists supported by CEH’s vast global research experience will help the Indian government achieve its aim”.

Additional information

Staff page of Prof Mike Acreman

Staff page of Cedric Laize

Staff page of Dr Harry Dixon

CEH's Science Areas

Friday, 7 November 2014

Monitoring biodiversity and habitats from space: a reality check

Watch a presentation on Earth Observation science, its limitations and its potential - a personal view from Dr France Gerard of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH). This talk was delivered to CEH staff on 4 November 2014.

Related links

Staff page of Dr France Gerard

Monitoring and Observation Systems Science Area

Natural Capital Science Area

CEH Information Gateway

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

National Pollinator Strategy and related CEH science

The National Pollinator Strategy was launched yesterday (4 November 2014) by Environment Minister Liz Truss. The strategy has been many months in the making and appears (judging by reactions reported in the media such as on the BBC and in the Guardian) to have widespread, if occasionally qualified, support from a large number of organisations and individuals.

The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) is one of two academic partners represented on the Stakeholder Advisory Group for the strategy project and our science is integral to delivering its aims.

References in the strategy to CEH work include:

The National Pollinator Strategy refers to an existing evidence base, and makes a number of comments on future evidence requirements. The strategy is intended to lay out a 10-year roadmap for actions and lays out a number of key evidence gaps.

The science carried out at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology is crucial to both understanding the current evidence base and addressing those gaps. In addition to the ongoing projects mentioned above, over the next five years scientists at CEH will:

  • Develop and test a new systematic and sustainable monitoring framework for pollinators to be implemented by professionals and by using a “citizen science” approach involving volunteers logging observations and gathering other evidence*.
  • Undertake research to quantify the impact on honeybees of two commercial neonicotinoids seed treatments in commercially grown crops of oilseed rape (‘Clothianidin’ Bayer CropScience and ‘Thiamethoxam’ Syngenta). CEH researchers have designed, and are overseeing the delivery of this pan-European, field experiment.

*The project was commissioned by Defra in summer 2014 and is being undertaken by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Leeds University, Reading University and the Open University, and entomology experts (Hymettus) and volunteers from recording schemes and societies (Bees Wasps and Ants Recording Society; Hoverfly Recording Scheme; Bumblebee Conservation Trust; Butterfly Conservation and British Trust for Ornithology).

Additional information

National Pollinator Strategy: for bees and other pollinators in England

Plan bee: New measures to protect pollinators BBC News - 4 November 2014

Will the UK's pollinator strategy be enough to stop bee decline?  The Guardian - 4 November 2014

Insect Pollinators Initiative Dissemination Event CEH blog post - 24 October 2014

Friday, 24 October 2014

Insect Pollinators Initiative Dissemination Event

The end of the UK Insect Pollinators Initiative (IPI)* was marked by an event at the Wellcome Trust on 21 October 2014. Attendees included Government Chief Scientist Sir Mark Walport and Ian Boyd, Defra Chief Scientist, as well as scientists from the various projects funded under the initiative.

Claire Carvell, Matt Heard and John Redhead of CEH put together a stand to highlight
their research activities for the Insect Pollinators Initiative

The IPI, which ran from late 2010, funded a number of research projects investigating the causes and consequences of insect pollinator decline.

To date, the IPI projects have produced more than 40 new research papers.

Dr Adam Vanbergen of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) was scientific coordinator of the IPI and spoke at the dissemination event.

CEH's Dr Claire Carvell led an IPI-funded project to investigate how habitat structure affected queen and worker bumblebees in the field, collaborating with CEH colleagues and researchers from UEA, the Zoological Society of London and Bristol University.

Scientists from CEH also collaborated on a project led by the University of Leeds, “Linking agriculture and land use change to pollinator populations”. The following tweets give a flavour of some of the results produced from the research.

Defra Chief Scientist Ian Boyd was among those at the event.

The National Pollinator Strategy will be launched this Autumn.

* The Insect Pollinators Initiative was launched in 2010 and funded nine research projects worth up to £10million. It was a joint initiative from BBSRC, Defra, NERC, the Scottish Government and the Wellcome Trust, and was funded under the auspices of the Living With Environmental Change partnership.

Related CEH news stories

Queen bumblebees disperse far from their birthplace before setting up home, DNA analysis reveals 

Ecologists get first bumblebees' eye view of the landscape

Cocktail of multiple pressures combine to threaten the world’s pollinating insects

Butterfly tennis balls!

A new study published in the journal PLOS Genetics (23 October 2014, PLOS Genet 10(10): e1004698) shows some very striking images of developing butterfly embryos; they look like little tennis balls! Dr Melanie Gibbs of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), one of the authors on the paper, explains where this unusual pattern comes from and how it may be linked to offspring survival.

Butterfly tennis balls: ShxA expression in 10 hour old embryos.
Photo by Jean-Michel Carter

“One of the first things that happens when insects begin to develop inside a freshly laid egg is that cells differentiate into those that will become the embryo, and those that will form extraembryonic tissue. The extraembryonic tissue covers the embryo and consists of a number of membranes, most notably the amnion and the serosa.

Hox genes are normally involved in patterning the embryo from head to tail, but one Hox gene called zerknüllt (zen) took on a new role and became involved in extraembryonic tissue formation in insects.

A collaborative project led by researchers at University of Oxford working with scientists at Oxford Brookes University and CEH has recently found that during the evolution of butterflies and moths, zen duplicated a number of times resulting in four novel genes, called the Special homeobox genes (shx). Although zen has been shown to duplicate in other insect orders, such a large number of zen-derived genes has never been witnessed before. This begs the question; what do they do?

During his PhD, Jean-Michel Carter (co-supervised by Dr. Casper Breuker, Oxford Brookes University and myself at CEH) found that in the Speckled Wood butterfly (Pararge aegeria) mothers put RNA transcripts of two of these genes, ShxC and ShxD, into the eggs they produce in their ovaries. These transcripts are put in the eggs in the location where the extraembryonic tissue will form. Such localisation actually represents one of the most complex examples of RNA localisation within a cell ever reported in any species, with the mother outlining the region that will become the future extraembryonic tissue before fertilisation and egg laying has even occurred!

ShxC expression in the egg developing inside the mother’s ovary.
Photo by Jean-Michel Carter

It is possible to visualise the location of specific RNA transcripts by using custom-made probes, called riboprobes, which colour purple when the RNA of interest is detected and bound. When you use such probes for Shx gene transcripts in both the ovaries and developing embryos (at around 10 hours old) and look under the microscope, you see an amazing pattern which closely resembles the pattern on a tennis ball. These patterns become even clearer when the embryo itself also starts expressing the ShxA and ShxB genes in the extraembryonic region which will become the serosa. So we started wondering what is a serosa exactly, and is it important? We are also intrigued as to why Speckled Wood mothers go to such lengths to make sure that this tissue is specified even before fertilisation occurs.

The insect serosa is considered to be an evolutionary novelty, which has been linked with the successful colonisation of the land by a large number of insect orders. For example, their predominantly aquatic sister group, the crustaceans, do not have a serosa. Apart from protecting the embryo from drying out, the serosa may also play a role in the innate immune system and the processing of environmental toxins. Thus by ensuring that the serosa develops correctly, butterfly mothers can therefore greatly improve their offspring’s chances of developing successfully and surviving to hatch from the egg, in often hostile and changeable terrestrial environments.”

Melanie Gibbs

A Speckled Wood female laying an egg.
Photo by Casper Breuker

Additional information

Full paper reference: Ferguson L, Marletaz F, Carter J-M, Taylor WR, Gibbs M, Breuker CJ & Holland PWH. 2014. Ancient expansion of the Hox cluster in Lepidoptera generated four homeobox genes implicated in extra-embryonic tissue formation, PLOS Genetics 10 (10): e1004698; doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1004698

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Sharing the planet: Hen harrier conservation and grouse shooting

Dr Juliette Young from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology was on Radio 4 earlier this week, being interviewed for the Shared Planet programme. This week’s episode looked at conflicts between people over wildlife and following the programme there has been a reasonable amount of online discussion of the issues raised, including a piece by former RSPB Conservation Director Mark Avery.

One of the examples discussed during the recording was the conflict in a number of areas of the British Isles between hen harrier conservation interests and land management for grouse shooting.

Dr Young’s comments in the programme built on research she and colleagues have carried out over the past ten years working on conflicts and stakeholder involvement in biodiversity conservation (e.g. Young et al., 2005, 2007, 2010; Redpath et al., 2013). The work involves speaking to a wide range of stakeholders with different perspectives on conflicts, including government advisers, scientists, conservation NGOs and land managers, including gamekeepers, who often feel portrayed by the media and other stakeholders in a negative light, despite their belief that their management can be beneficial to a variety of species.

Dr Young said, “I sincerely hope that a solution can be found to ensure the conservation of hen harriers and other protected species. Whilst I condemn illegal activities against protected species my research has examined how, why and in which contexts conflicts emerge, and aims to analyse how shared understanding and solutions can be found. My research therefore reflects a wide range of different interests and values, all of which need to be understood to navigate through complex conservation conflicts.”

Dr Young’s research has shown that conflicts can be managed effectively through dialogue among all relevant stakeholders and this can lead to shared solutions where different human activities, including conservation, co-exist in the managed landscape (see also Redpath et al., 2013, Young et al., 2010). During the Shared Planet recording she highlighted one good example where this approach has succeeded. When the Scottish government implemented a seal conservation order in 2002 this was a catalyst by which all the local groups felt affected and understood the need to make changes. This catalyst led to the Moray Firth Seal Management Plan (MFSMP) that focused on the need to balance seal and salmon conservation. A local champion emerged who brought all relevant stakeholders, and their knowledge, together, to seek a shared solution to the conflict (Young et al., 2012, 2013a and b).

Additional information

Dr Juliette Young is a social scientist at CEH’s site near Edinburgh, where she has been working since 2002. She initially trained as an ecologist at the University of London (BSc) and University of Leeds (MSc), spent time rehabilitating chimpanzees in Sierra Leone and chasing fig wasps in the Cook Islands before joining CEH. She has a PhD in political science. Her current work focuses on four main areas:

  • public attitudes towards biodiversity, including views on how it should be or is managed, and the values associated with biodiversity.
  • the communication between scientists and decision-makers.
  • the understanding of human conflicts over nature conservation.
  • the role of stakeholder engagement in nature conservation, particularly in the context of protected areas and species.


Young, J., Jordan, A., Searle, K.R., Butler, A., Simmons, P. 2013a. Framing scale in participatory biodiversity management may contribute to more sustainable solutions. Conservation Letters 6(5): 333-340.

Young, J., Jordan, A., Searle, K.R., Butler, A., Chapman, D., Simmons, P., Watt, A.D. 2013b. Does stakeholder involvement really benefit biodiversity conservation? Biological Conservation 158: 359-370.

Redpath, S., Young, J., Evely, A., Adams, W.M., Sutherland, W.J., Whitehouse, A., Amar, A., Lambert, R., Linnell, J., Watt, A.D. 2013. Understanding and managing conflicts in biodiversity conservation. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 28(2): 100-109.

Young, J., Butler, J.R.A., Jordan, A., Watt, A.D. 2012. Less government intervention in biodiversity management: Risks and opportunities. Biodiversity and Conservation 21(4): 1095-1100.

Young, J., Marzano, M., White, R.M., McCracken, D.I., Redpath, S.M., Carss, D.N., Quine, C.P., Watt, A.D. 2010. The emergence of biodiversity conflicts from biodiversity impacts: characteristics and management strategies. Biodiversity & Conservation 19(14): 3973-3990.

Henle, K., Alard, D., Clitherow, J., Cobb, P., Firbank, L., Kull, T., McCracken, D., Moritz, R.F.A., Niemelä, J., Rebane, M., Wascher, D., Watt, A., Young, J. 2008. Identifying and managing the conflicts between agriculture and biodiversity conservation in Europe – a review. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 124 (1-2): 60-71.

Young, J., Richards, C., Fischer, A., Halada, L., Kull, T., Kuzniar, A., Tartes, U., Uzunov, U. and Watt, A. 2007. Conflicts between biodiversity conservation and human activities in the Central and Eastern European Countries. Ambio 36(7): 545-550.

Young, J., Watt, A., Nowicki, P., Alard, D., Clitherow, J., Henle, K., Johnson, R., Laczko, E., McCracken, D., Matouch, S., Niemelä, J. 2005. Towards sustainable land use: identifying and managing the conflicts between human activities and biodiversity conservation in Europe. Biodiversity and Conservation 14(7): 1641-1661.

Many scientific publications are on subscription websites. Authors may be able to send individuals full copies of their papers.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Ladybirds, fungi and alien invaders

Dr Helen Roy reveals why she is fascinated by Hesperomyces virescens and Harmonia axyridis.

Of all species on Earth it is the parasites that seem to receive least appreciation for their intrinsic beauty. Yet they are exquisite. I have been fascinated by parasites for many years, particularly fungal pathogens of insects. I began my exploration of these intriguing fungi through studies on an obligate parasite of aphids – Pandora neoaphidis. The intricate fungal structures of this delicate (and lethal) fungus when viewed under the microscope are simply beautiful but perhaps even more inspiring are the amazing ways in which this fungus interacts so intimately with the host aphids it infects. It can alter the behaviour of aphids in dramatic ways even affecting the communication between aphids to enhance transmission.

Ladybirds also play a part in the dispersal of this aphid-pathogenic fungus but they are also host to their own fungal parasites too.

The yellow fruiting bodies of Hesperomyces virescens fungus protrude from an infected ladybird
Photo: Katie Murray

Recently Katie Murray, a PhD student based at the University of Stirling but who I have the pleasure of also supervising, found one of the most quirky groups of fungi infecting Harmonia axyridis (harlequin ladybird) in London - the Laboulbeniales. The species of fungus is called Hesperomyces virescens and has previously been studied within Adalia bipunctata (2-spot ladybird) in London.

I met Katie, and her co-supervisor Matt Tinsley, the day after she had made her discovery. The fungus utterly captivated us all. The small yellow fruiting bodies that protrude from infected individuals are striking. The supervisory meeting was dominated by our lively and excitable speculations on the life-history of this fungi and specifically the extent of the epidemic that Katie had stumbled upon. We have so many questions and so few answers.

We are now hoping that people across the UK can help us unravel the mysteries of this unique parasite by contributing to a new parasite survey. As harlequin ladybirds move into people’s homes this winter we are encouraging them to submit photographs, count how many ladybirds they spot and how many appear to have the fungal infection. You can find out more details about Laboulbeniales fungi and take part in the parasite survey here.

Dr Helen Roy is an Ecological Entomologist, working within the Biological Records Centre at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. She also leads the UK Ladybird Survey.

More information about the appeal for citizen scientists to help in mapping the fungal epidemic can be found on the CEH News Centre.