Boasting about backyard biodiversity

The easiest way for an aspiring naturalist to explore wildlife is by stepping out into their own backyard. Try it yourself. As I write this, I can look through my window at a Karoo Thrush hopping about my garden. But this post is not about the tiny garden surrounding my current apartment, but rather about my childhood home. I was tremendously fortunate to grow up on a 60 hectare farm, where  first discovered my love for nature.

Between wrapping up my PhD and starting my current lecturing position, I spent a few months of unemployment back in the house I grew up in. During that time, I discovered the thrill of recording unobtrusive nocturnal critters using a camera trap. Every afternoon, I set up the camera trap and eagerly explored the footage the following morning. It was so much fun.

After enough time, even I was amazed by the variety of species that lived on this relatively small farm. Perhaps, I should rephrase that last sentence. You see, calling it a farm is not accurate because it hasn’t been used for agricultural in more than ten years. The last cows were removed back in 2004 and since then the land was left dormant and only managed to minimise the risk of wild fire.

Still, I captured footage of 18 different mammal species, which is remarkably high for such a small area. Moreover, the camera trap is unlikely to capture any footage of bats and small rodents, so the total mammal diversity is probably even higher. I decided to write up these observations and the results have just been published online in the African Journal of Ecology. Continue reading

Transdisciplinary research is not a solution to environmental problems

Over the weekend, Joern Fischer wrote a criticism of transdisciplinary research. I was very eager to read it because it is something I have been wondering about over the last few months too. I began commenting on his blog, but, as my comment grew longer, I thought it is perhaps a better idea to flesh out my thoughts into a full post. Overall, I agree with Joern’s misgivings, but I would go even further to suggest that he was perhaps too forgiving towards transdisciplinary research.

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Startup for Nature: showcasing innovation in conservation

I’m excited to announce the launch of my latest pet-project, Startup for Nature, a website aimed at promoting entrepreneurial approaches to conserving nature.

Startup_full logo

Regular readers know that I believe we need more entrepreneurship in conservation. That’s why I set up a website devoted to answering some common questions about conservation entrepreneurship and showcasing some of the most innovative conservation startups.

Furthermore, Startup for Nature also features in the poster I’ll be presenting at the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Montpellier during August.

If Startup for Nature encourages just one aspiring entrepreneur to launch their own conservation venture, then I’ll consider it successful. But to do this, it must first reach the right audience with the most engaging content.

Here’s the part where I ask for your help.

You can help Startup for Nature create a sub-culture of entrepreneurship amongst conservationists. Here’s how:

  • Click through to Startup for Nature. Browse around and let me know if there is anything you’d like to see more (or less) of.
  • If you like what you see, please share it with everyone in your social network (using the sharing buttons on the website). By reaching a broader audience, we increase the chances of finding that one inspired person who might launch the next big conservation venture.
  • If you know of anyone who has launched their own conservation venture, or you have launched one yourself, please let me know so that I can add it to the site. Celebrating the most innovation startups will hopefully increase the uptake of entrepreneurship in conservation.

I work at a university, and have know idea what I am doing!

I meant to post this much earlier, but I just haven’t found the time. You see, I started a new job a few months ago– my first full-time academic position – and I been struggling to keep my head above water ever since.

The last year has been a whirlwind for me. Within a few months, I finished my PhD, moved back to South Africa from Belgium, spent two months of unemployment living in my childhood home before taking on the position I have now. Needless to say, I embarked on this new career path in a unprepared and frazzled state.

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Conservationists must realise that farmers are central to conserving nature

The patchwork of farmland near my childhood home

The patchwork of farmland near my childhood home

Between finishing my PhD and starting my current job, I spent several months of unemployment on the family farm near Bethlehem in the Free State Province, South Africa. Rather than actively searching for a real job, I procrastinated by watching birds and tracking mammals with a camera trap.

The experience was like re-reading a really good book; I kept seeing things I hadn’t noticed before. Despite spending my childhood in the area, it wasn’t until I actually started paying close attention that I realised the amazing nature around me.

Although it is an agricultural heartland, the region is teeming with life. For example, the sampling quadrat for the South African Bird Atlas Project near my house contains 257 different bird species. To put that in perspective, the entire Island of Madagascar supposedly only hosts 265 species (give or take 10 species depending on the source).

No wonder the area is part of the Rooiberge-Riemland Important Bird and Biodiversity Area.

If I, as a professional ecologist, took so long to realise the amazing biodiversity of the area, then surely others are also oblivious to it? As conservationists, we should be concerned by this.

Most of the half-a-million hectares of the Rooiberge-Riemland Important Bird and Biodiversity Area is on commercial farmland. How can we expect to conserve this area without the buy-in from the local farmers? They are, after all, the owners of the land and are solely responsible for what happens on the ground.

As a consequence, I am trying to realign my own career trajectory. The idea now is to make it as easy as possible for farmers to conserve nature. To this end, I wrote an essay for pilot African version of the The Conversation.

If you’re interested please click through: Farmers hold the key to nature conservation: let’s treat them that way.

We’re used to hearing great tales of conservation in faraway tropical forests and coral reefs, but I am incredibly excited about the opportunity to conserve nature in my own backyard. Hopefully, this is just the first in a long-line of things I have planned. Watch this space.

How do correlations between climate and biodiversity arise? UPDATED

Anyone who as ever watched a David Attenborough documentary knows that biodiversity differs in areas with different climates. Only a few species an survive in hot and dry deserts whereas warm and wet tropical forests are teeming with life. But have you every stopped to wonder why this is so?

Why are certain climate conditions able to support many species and others not? More specifically, how does this work mechanistically?

This was the question my co-authors and I set out to answer in our most recent paper just published online at Global Ecology and Biogeography.

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What can Sudoku teach us about ecology and evolution?

Evolution is creeping into several different aspects of ecology. The latest buzz is all about integrating ecology and evolution. Perhaps you’ve heard of the  latest research trends in eco-evolutionary dynamics or community phylogenetics?

Theodosius Dobzhansky famously stated that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution“. This claim is undoubtedly true, but I’ve recently found myself wondering whether our obsession with evolution is actually clouding our ability to do good ecological research.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not implying that evolution is not important in explaining patterns in nature, nor am I suggesting that we should disregard evolutionary explanations for these patterns. Instead, I believe that in order to gain a deeper understanding of ecology, we should perhaps partially blind our views using “evolution blinkers”. In fact, I’d even be so bold as to claim that unless we blind ourselves to evolution, we will never be able to fully grasp the true nature of ecological processes. Unifying ecology and evolution might actual limit our ability to build ecology as a science.

Richard Feynman used a useful chess analogy to explain how physics works. I’ll borrow this style of argument to explain my stance on ecology and evolution. However, since chess is too complicated for my liking, I’ll use an even simpler game: Sudoku. Continue reading