The Arctic fieldwork begins!

Happy Solstice everyone!

Team Drone arrives

Will, Gergana and Andy from the current Team Drone Crew on arrival on Qikiqtaruk on the 21st June 2017 – Jeff was off taking photos somewhere and miss the photo!

Team Drone has flown off from Inuvik and landed safe and sound on Qikiqtaruk – Herschel Island yesterday. The sea ice is still moving around in the waters around the island.  Sam the ranger said it was piling up in Thetis Bay in an impressive way a few days ago. You can check out the sea ice conditions in this satellite image below and live on the NASA website.

Photos and accounts to follow of Team Shrub’s arrival when Park Biologist Cameron Eckert flies off of the island later today. Cameron has recently had some really cool bird sightings on the island over the past week including a Calliope Hummingbird feeding on a willow flower and a Cape May Warbler foraging in the tundra, those are the first sightings for the island and the Hummingbird is a first for the Yukon and Beaufort Region! He supposedly has an awesome picture of the hummingbird.  Can’t wait to see it!

Team Drone has put the food in the ice house freezer and rested after the busy period of field preparations in Inuvik and has even had a chance to go out birding with Cameron before he leaves the island.  I am guessing they will be getting going on field data collection today.

Let the fieldwork begin!

by Isla

Fieldwork prep in Inuvik

After Kluane, the next stop on our journey northwards was Inuvik, and in particular the Aurora Research Institute, where there were many boxes waiting for us – all the equipment that had arrived from Edinburgh earlier. We have been in Inuvik for several days now and the piles of boxes have grown and grown – drones and drone parts, research equipment and food and gear for 2 months on Qikiqtaruk Herschel Island! We may or may not have bought all the wraps in Inuvik, and the local stocks of Ziploc bags have taken a serious hit.


Us and many boxes!

We lucked out on being in Inuvik when there was an airshow on – the flying was really impressive and the event had a lovely community feeling to it. With music and beautiful figures up in the air, everyone was smiling and taking it all in. The final act felt special – it was a father and son duo who demonstrated impressive skills and one could tell they are having fun up in the air. I certainly have no aircraft piloting career in front of me (even normal planes make me dizzy!), but I was inspired to see people doing what they love, regardless of what the “thing” is.


Father and son pilot duo at the Inuvik Airshow!

Our departure to Qikiqtaruk got delayed as the island and water around it are still icy, which gave us extra time to learn more about life in Inuvik. We read the local newspaper, and were particularly entertained by the “Whatsit” quiz. I sent in my guess for this week’s game (a violin?), and I might win an unknown prize! Though on seconds thoughts I wish I had put down a fiddle, not a violin.


Ah, too bad I wasn’t here for the May 18th quiz, I love lemons!

We also went to the Inuvik Visitors Centre and then the AEETCT – the Arctic Energy and Emerging Technologies Conference and Tradeshow! We enjoyed talking with the different trades representatives and learning more about industry, environment & their interplay in an Arctic context. Will felt particularly well-welcomed – the staff was indeed very friendly. Andy’s highlight of the tradeshow was chatting with the North West Territories government scientists – knowledge-exchange in action!

I continued my tradition of visiting a garden everywhere I go around the world – in Kluane the garden was of course the common garden, and here in Inuvik, I went to the lovely community garden greenhouse. It felt like a home many miles away from my home and garden – we even order some of our seeds from the same company. I am always intrigued to see what brings people together in different places around the world – growing food is a common theme! Gardening, be it in the common garden or in a fruit and veg garden has brought joy to many of us on Team Shrub!

Aside from seeing how gardening contributes to building communities, it’s been wonderful to see how science and research can achieve that as well – during our time preparing and packing at the Aurora Research Institute, we have met people from all sorts of disciplines – it’s inspiring to know that though we may come from different places and our fields might diverge, we do come together in what we most love doing – unraveling exciting aspects of the world around us!

By Gergana

The start of our fieldwork adventure

Beautiful snow-capped mountains, many shrubs, bald eagles soaring (too far) over us and ground squirrels rushing back to their burrows as we walk over to our field sites – it’s fieldwork season!

We have started our exciting fieldwork adventure in the Canadian Arctic! Flying over from Edinburgh and Paris, part of our team met up at Vancouver airport to begin our journey north, where later we will be joined by Jeff and Isla. Our first stop was Whitehorse, where we picked up a new drone and everything we need to set up phenocams in the common garden… except the phenocams, which got delayed, so the rest of the field crew will bring them over later. We did manage to install one phenocam, graciously lent to us by a fellow researcher, which brings me to one of my first impressions of Kluane – there is a lovely sense of community and stunning views  all around – an inspiring place for ecologists!

It was my first time seeing the common garden – the garden was established in 2013 to test for local adaptation in growth form in tundra willows across climate and latitudinal gradients. Since 2013, the garden has seen many field assistants take care of it, and of course, there was the pump saga from last year! There were some impressive looking shrubs, which looked extra majestic with the beautiful mountains behind them. We measured plant traits (you can read more about the Tundra Trait Team here) – leaf length and stem elongation, in particular. While we were measuring away, some of the local wildlife visited us – the taller shrubs make a nice landing post for grey jays!

Afterwards, fieldwork got crafty – we set up posts for phenocams, which will take a photo every hour during the growing season, giving us a visual insight into shrub life over the summer. One phenocam is already taking photos, and the rest of the posts are ready, ribbons out of flagging tape and all, for the other phenocams once they arrive!

Our first week of fieldwork also included the first drone flight of the season, which gave us a lovely perspective of the common garden from above. We are now waiting for our flight up to Inuvik – Team Drone is moving northwards towards our final destination – Herschel Island. We have left Kluane with fond memories of beautiful landscapes, exciting wildlife encounters and last but certainly not least, memories of keen ecologists and kind and helpful research station managers!

By Gergana

Drone Research Workshop

Recent advances in drone technologies are offering exciting new perspectives for ecology and environmental sciences – for Team Shrub, drone research is an essential part of our work to understand how global change alters plant communities and ecosystem processes. We love hearing about how people from different disciplines are using drones to advance their research, and the visit of our fellow Team Shrub member Jeff Kerby was the perfect occasion to organise an afternoon full of drone science!

Kicking off our drone afternoon was Jeff’s Global Change Seminar talk, titled “Phenology in a changing Arctic: From individuals to landscapes”. Jeff’s talk demonstrated the value of long-term ecological monitoring of both plant phenology and large herbivores. By studying how plant and herbivore communities vary through time, Jeff is offering insight into how changing environmental conditions reflect on how those communities are expressing their phenology across the landscape. As the level of asynchrony between plants and herbivores increases, caribou calf production decreases. For muskox, however, there was a less clear pattern.

It was particularly interesting to think about the trade-offs that occur as a result of the effect of global change drivers on life histories – if plants emerge too early, there are higher chances they will encounter bad weather conditions which may compromise their growth; on the flip side, those early emerging plants will have a longer growing season. Thinking about foraging ecology, opportunistic animals can track “greening signals”, but what is causing greening across the landscape to begin with? Snowmelt, thawing degree days and temperature could all be linked with the changes in plant communities we are observing. An exciting question then becomes whether the greening is propagating at a herbivore-relevant scale.

When trying to disentangle the mechanistic drivers of phenology changes on a biome scale, it becomes a challenge to tie dynamics across time and space – how can we link patterns in satellite observations and on the ground measurements? Does the scale at which we are observing these changes bias our observations? This is where timelapse cameras and drones come (fly) in! “Computer vision” can offer further insight – for example, we can use computer vision to count flowers in drone-acquired imagery.

Building up on Jeff’s great talk, we then found out about  a wide range of drone-facilitated research, as part of our Drone Research Workshop. Here at the School of GeoSciences, we benefit from the excellent NERC recognised Airborne GeoSciences facility.

In line with the Arctic-oriented start of our drone afternoon, Isla presented about the ShrubTundra Project, which aims to quantify the role of climate as a driver of tundra shrub expansion and tundra greening. An exciting development for drone researchers is the establishment of the Drone Ecology Network – a network of high-latitude ecologists using drones to answer ecological questions. The network will share methods, techniques and expertise to improve the collection of drone remotely-sensed data in tundra ecosystems and to enhance the comparison of data in future.

Jeff told us about another fantastic initiative – Conservation Drones, which seeks to share knowledge of building and using low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles for conservation-related applications with conservation workers and researchers worldwide, especially those in developing countries.


We were thrilled to find out more about Andy‘s exciting recent participation in a workshop in Brazil, as part of a long-term experiment aiming to understand drought effects in tropical rainforests.


Simon Gibson-Poole demonstrated a great diversity of drone applications – from monitoring the spread of Giant Hogweed to using drones in agricultural trials and disease management.

IMG_1025  IMG_1023

Lizzie Dingle‘s talk took us to Nepal where she used drones to map river channels in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. Lizzie also gave us very useful insight into what some of the challenges of drone fieldwork are, particularly in remote fieldsites.

Paige dePolo used drones in her Master’s research to collect bedding plane scale photogrammetric datasets for dinosaur footprints located on intertidal platforms on the Isle of Skye.

Zhaoliang Hou talked about his plan  to test the possibility of UAV mapping in hilled areas.

Next up, Team Shrub’s honours student Arabella gave an excellent presentation about the patterns of tundra greenness and soil moisture. Arabella discussed how she assessed the correspondence between soil moisture distribution and vegetation greenness using drone data with different spatial grain.


Our last talk of the afternoon took us to the Scottish Borders, where Kathryn Murphy used drone imagery and 3D modelling in the study of an overlooked archaeological site.

Visiting our “Arctic from Above” exhibition was an inspirational ending to our drone-filled day – Jeff got to see his exhibited work in person, and we all enjoyed going back to our photos of Arctic fieldsites and wildlife.



Coding Club goes to Aberdeen and the Impact Awards

It’s been almost a year since we first started pondering the idea of a positive and supportive environment where we can all advance our skills in statistics and programming. We had a vision for a place where we can learn without the pressure of formal assessment, and with the ability to tailor our skills to our needs. For the last few months we have been organising weekly workshops and publishing the materials online on our website, and we are so happy to see Coding Club go from a vision to a real initiative! I, along with Team Shrub alumni John and a great group of PhD students, among which Sandra and Haydn, have been leading workshops on topics such as version control using GitHub, data visualisation, efficient data manipulation, and mixed effects modelling. The workshops are open for everyone to attend, from undergraduates to academic staff, and we are thrilled to have shared our enthusiasm (and sometimes frustration) for coding with people from different disciplines, including ecology, environmental science, geography, and biology.


Inspired by the positive feedback from our workshops in Edinburgh, we were keen to make links with other people across Scotland that have undertaken similar statistics and programming initiatives. As I’m always curious to see how other people lead such workshops and wouldn’t want to miss a chance to learn something new, I attended the “Data Archiving and Coding Workshop” at the BES Annual Meeting in Liverpool last December. Great things happen at coding workshops, among which the start of exciting new collaborations! Sitting at my table was Francesca Mancini, a PhD student from the University of Aberdeen, who was about to start a coding study group in her department. When I found out that this year’s Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation Conference will take place in Aberdeen, I immediately thought of Francesca, and thanks to great work and enthusiasm from her and our Coding Club team in Edinburgh, we organised Coding Club’s first joint workshop that took place just before the opening of the conference.


With a room full of people keen to learn about efficient data manipulation and data visualisation, we set out to quantify population change based on the Living Planet Index database, and visualise species occurrence data from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and Flickr. I have been fascinated with the creative use of social media data for conservation research ever since I heard Francesca’s talk in Liverpool, and I, along with the rest of the workshop attendees, were very keen to learn how to make density maps and examine how they differ depending on the data source – GBIF or Flickr. On the Edinburgh side of the workshop, we couldn’t resist an opportunity to share our love for tidy data and efficient workflows when tackling large datasets, like the LPI.


Although we are teaching at Coding Club, the workshops and preparation of the online tutorials have very much been a learning experience for us as well. Thanks to our interactions with the people who attend the Coding Club workshops, we are learning so many new things, and will continue to improve our work. Some of those improvements even happened “live” during the workshop, when my compulsive desire to put spaces around every plus sign got in the way of the code running smoothly!


I find it so inspirational when people come together to learn, especially when the material they are learning is often seen as scary and hard (and the dramatic R error messages sure don’t help!). We were very happy to meet new people from Aberdeen and are hoping to continue developing this collaboration through future joint workshops in both Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

Until then, you can find all of the materials from our workshop on the Coding Club website – “Working efficiently with large datasets.


Shortly after our joint workshop in Aberdeen, we attended the Impact Awards at the University of Edinburgh, where Coding Club was shortlisted in the “Best Student-Staff Collaboration” category. After hearing about many wonderful initiatives improving student learning and experience at university, we left the ceremony with even more inspiration and drive to continue building the academic environment we dream of. We also left with a trophy, as Coding Club was the winner in its category!


It was great to reflect on our Coding Club journey so far, and now we are very much looking forward to our future workshops and ideas on how to develop quantitative skills among students and staff. Whenever our own code doesn’t run (very often), and we see the same error messages that scare away our workshop attendees, we find motivation in the encouraging feedback of students and staff – we deeply appreciate the support we have received so far, and will continue developing Coding Club with much enthusiasm!


By Gergana

Team Shrub at the Edinburgh Science Festival

April has been a very exciting time for Team Shrub in terms of science outreach – we have teamed up with digital artists and videographers to communicate the key findings of our research in the Arctic to an audience from Edinburgh and beyond. We are thrilled to be collaborating with Simon Sloan, Archie Crofton and ASCUS to go beyond traditional means of science communication and use beautiful photographs, data visualisations and hands-on workshops to prompt discussion on the rapid environmental changes occurring in the Arctic. In addition to our wonderful collaborators, our outreach work is hugely benefiting from the excellent photography skills of our own Team Shrub members Sandra Angers-Blondin, Jeff Kerby and Anne Bjorkman. The Edinburgh International Science Festival was the perfect occasion to bring together beautiful photos with cool artifacts from our fieldwork for an event under the theme of “Arctic from Above” – Team Shrub’s first exhibition!

Arctic from Above

Preparations for the exhibitions were filled with much joy and trepidation – with drone imagery, shrub rings, photos of tundra plants and wildlife, tea bags, muskox fur and more, the exhibition encompassed many of the reasons why we love Arctic research!

Weeks of careful consideration of themes, colours and order culminated in an exciting chance to share our work with everyone who came along to the opening nights. With many questions and discussions, the exhibition room was buzzing with curiosity and enthusiasm. We were thrilled to see so many people engage with the dramatic changes the Arctic is experiencing, and ask meaningful questions – it is always refreshing to think about your work from a different perspective, and we really appreciated our chats with the exhibition visitors.

The Summerhall War Memorial Gallery is a wonderful home for our creative outputs, and there is still plenty of time to check out the exhibition before it closes on the 12th May! The vibrant and diverse atmosphere of the Contemporary Connections events, among which our exhibition “Arctic form Above”, is also captured in the video below. In the video you can also see moments from our second contribution to Contemporary Connections – a visualisation of shrub growth by Simon Sloan!

Contemporary Connections: visualising data in innovative ways

Sandra’s shrub ring photos and growth data served as inspiration for digital artist Simon Sloan to create a captivating video of shrub growth through time. It was fascinating to see data represented in a new and different way, and we hope to be collaborating with Simon again in the future to continue pushing the boundaries of innovative science communication! We were very impressed to find out that behind the beautiful imagery there is… code! Of course, our own R code sometimes results in abstract renditions of data visualisation, but that’s usually the result of a coding error, not a purposeful desire to create patterns and shapes where there would usually just be data points. The next Edinburgh Science Festival event in which Team Shrub participated, “Dialogues with the artists” gave us a glimpse of how we can highlight the beauty in data through graphic design software and the Processing programming software.

Check out the video about the exhibition featuring Team Shrub:

Dialogues with the artists

Through a series of talks by scientists and artists and follow up questions, the public got the chance to learn how collaborations between two seemingly very different disciplines – science and art – come to be, and what are the challenges and benefits of such work. We enjoyed learning about our fellow Edinburgh School of GeoSciences researchers including Seb Hennige who study Scottish deep-sea cold-water coral reefs and their artistic collaboration with Hannah Imlach entitled ‘From the Dark Ocean Comes Light, among several other great art-science projects. Isla and Sandra talked about the key themes of our research, what it’s like to work in the Arctic, as well as how we collect data. Following from the introduction to the dramatic environmental changes occurring in high latitudes, Simon shared what it’s like to bring out the creative side of data – turns out there is data clean up and formatting regardless of whether you are using the data for research, or art! It was fantastic to see how we can go from shrub ring photos and rows of numbers via processing code to a captivating video of shrub growth!

Communicating through video

We have also teamed up with motion designer Archie Crofton to communicate the big questions that we are investigating in our research.  Archie has put together a series of video clips inspired by our drone ecology research using drones to link on-the-ground measurements of tundra vegetation change to satellite observations of the greening Arctic.


Our art-science collaboration has inspired us for more outreach and we are very keen to continue fostering a discussion on Arctic change among the wider public! We would like to thank the Global Environment & Society Academy Innovation Fund for helping us bring these projects to fruition.

Our next two outreach events at the Edinburgh Science Festival will be a more hands-on experience of what it’s like to use shrub rings as indicators of environmental change through time, as well as what it’s like to be a drone pilot and what new horizons drone technologies open up for ecology!

Contemporary Connections: Exploring the Art in Data – Saturday 1 April – Friday 12 May 2017 at Summerhall

Tundra shrubs – Arctic time machines, with Sandra Angers-Blondin – Wednesday 12 April 2017 11:00 and 14:30 at the ASCUS Lab in Summerhall

Researching with Drones: Meet the ExpertsSaturday 15 April 2017 10:00 AM at Our Dynamic Earth

By Gergana

Team Shrub at SEECC

Last week saw a delegation of Team Shrub travel all the way up north to Aberdeen – shamefully a first visit for many of us who clearly spend too much time in Edinburgh!

We attended the Scottish Ecology, Environment and Conservation Conference, which brought together graduate students, academics and policy makers from the universities of Aberdeen, St Andrews, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling, and from organisations like the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage.

The pretty streets of old Aberdeen

We were busy even before the conference started : members of Team Shrub who are also members of the Coding Club ran a joint workshop with the Aberdeen Study Group on analysing large biodiversity datasets (do it yourself!). We had a full room and everyone learned something new in R!

Three of us gave presentations that were very well received and praised for their graphic design – “visually stunning” as Gergana has a habit of saying.

Haydn Thomas – Decomposition patterns across the tundra biome: litters substrate explains more than environment. Haydn presented results from the Tundra Teabag Experiment, demonstrating how the quality of litter inputs influences decomposition rates a lot more than site conditions like temperature or moisture.


Gergana Daskalova – Are rare species more likely to be declining than common species? A common assumption, but the answer is nope! At least, not in the UK. Gergana showed that common metrics of rarity like habitat specificity are not linked to steeper slopes of population change, and that there is not even a declining trend for UK vertebrate populations: a lot of populations are also increasing or remaining stable. Gergana’s excellent talk was highly commended by the jury!


John Godlee – How do competitive interactions affect elevational range shifts of neotropical trees? John presented exciting results from his Honours dissertation, demonstrating that tree seedlings are negatively impacted by root competition from mature trees, but that the canopy of the latter might reduce plant stress in those same seedlings. Fascinating parallels with the stress-gradient hypothesis, a favourite topic of mine – and of the jury apparently, as John won first prize for the best talk presented at the conference! Congratulations John!



Our Team Shrub poster presenting some of our current research interests

After mingling at the poster session, everyone went to the pub for more mingling, and Isla persuaded the staff to put on University Challenge on the big screen so we could watch the Edinburgh team play their last match: a sad outcome, but we are super proud of our very own Edinburgh Boyle (captain) and the rest of the team for an enthralling and edifying season!

The second day of the conference was full of excellent student talks on subjects as diverse as food preferences in hummingbirds, mysterious lichen taxonomy (baffling indeed), and sustainable management of tropical ecosystems, and everything in between. There was also a panel discussion on applying ecological science to conservation and environmental policy. The panelists were adamant that research is impactful and valuable to policy. As Georgina Mace put it, “the key is to find a question that is answerable, interesting and worthy”. Anne Glover emphasised the importance of timely thinking: “It’s incredibly important to communicate your science at the right time, not when the train has already left the station – look at which policies are coming up, which ones are due to be revised.”

Other words by Anne Glover resonated with us: “You can’t generate knowledge and not find a home for it. A home with just other scientists is not good enough”. This applies to policy, but I felt it also relates a lot to the many outreach events we have on at the moment with the Edinburgh International Science Festival. There is definitely much to be gained by sharing perspectives and opening up to new ideas.

Thanks to the organisers for putting together such an exciting programme. We are already looking forward to next year’s edition of SEECC!

By Sandra

A fortune pastry for Team Shrub

Today in lab meeting we ate a traditional Bulgarian pastry baked by our very own data manager and soon-to-be PhD student Gergana Daskalova.

Сладка баница (or sladka banitza) is a new year’s tradition in Bulgaria, it is a pastry that is both sweet and salty representing both the good and the bad in life and it contains pieces of paper cooked in with fortunes written on them! Sure, it isn’t quite the new year anymore, but it is a bit of a new beginning for Team Shrub with new students joining the lab for the summer’s field season or as dissertation students for next year.

As the most senior member of the team, it was my job to slice up the pastry and distribute the fortunes. So, to find out what is in store for members of Team Shrub, read on…



  1. You will discover an amazing super-efficient dplyr trick by chance. – Awesome! We hope that is one amazing dplyr trick per team member, so that we become even more super-efficient programmers. Perhaps, one day we can write a Coding Club tutorial with all of our new coding tricks!
  2. As many stars in the sky, that much money in your wallet (or research funding). – Yay! Future research funding! We don’t know when that funding will arrive, but I guess it is time to get some proposals submitted.



  1. You might not be looking for treasure, but you will find some regardless – perhaps during fieldwork, or whilst frolicking around in the outside world. – A treasure! I love treasures – either actual or metaphorical.
  2. A big research grant is heading your way – lots of exciting research and deep thinking (or even deep machine learning) in your future! More potential funding in our future and maybe some deep machine learning!!! How exciting – though again, I better submit some proposals so this has a possibility of coming true!


  1. Your spirit will be free and you will enjoy exciting travels in new places! – Exciting travels. I hope Sandra remembers to bring her camera to take some more wonderful photos!
  2. Excellent organization skills will help you strike a great work-life balance and you will know just when to say no and when to be super ambitious! – Oh, the illusive work-life balance, and knowing when to say no, sounds like something many folks on Team Shrub are striving towards!


  1. A manuscript of yours shall get accepted in a fancier journal than what you originally envisioned. – An even fancier journal for Gergana’s first manuscript submission perhaps?
  2. A beautiful, logical and novel storyline for a manuscript will form in your head, and you will be organized enough to write it down before you forget it. – Another manuscript fortune, that bodes well for Gergana’s publication record.


  1. Love and joy, both of which sincere, will follow you everywhere you go. – Oh how nice. So many positive things!
  2. Excellent health and a great state of mind will help you be happy and accomplished. – Wow how positive yet again. Sounds like Cameron is going to be a great asset to the field crew this summer!


  1. You shall make great progress towards striking the balance between being very ambitious and knowing when it’s enough for your work to be “good enough”. – We could all work on that, particularly the perfectionists on the team!
  2. Bravely go forward, good luck will follow you at each step! – Nice one, that does bode well for Sam’s dissertation plans.


  1. After many years, your wish finally comes true – better and more diverse food options on KB! – Wow, all of our dreams would come true if this were the case. After having been to the University of Aberdeen this week and sampling their delicious on campus food, we are feeling very jealous!
  2. Exciting nature experiences shall provide you with inspiration and motivation! – Probably, while Haydn is on his Easter cycling holiday.


  1. Strong will take you forward in life! – Strong will and perseverance. There is a lot of that on Team Shrub.
  2. A chance encounter leads to an exciting opportunity for collaboration from which novel contributions to science will arise! – Hmm… perhaps this is referring to Andy’s current travels to Brazil to fly a drone over the rainforest.


  1. Amazing! You will have time to be lazy and relax! – Ah, we could all probably use a bit of relaxing with our busy schedules of late!
  2. Brilliant ideas shall pop into your head at unexpected times. – Cool! Bodes well for Jakob’s PhD analyses! I hope we all have some brilliant ideas over the next year.


  1. You might have given up on a certain manuscript or goal, but unexpected help and inspiration will give you the drive to finally accomplish those tasks! – Nice. Nina can probably use her future inspiration in her new job!
  2. Your communication skills will be top notch – be it manuscripts, emails or presentations, you will be clear and concise, and your efforts to develop those skills will pay off! – Top notch! Those communication skills are also going to come in handy with the new job.  Congrats Nina!

So it sounds like it is going to be a very productive and ambitious, yet relaxing and balanced year for Team Shrub. Thanks to our new team members for coming along to the lab meeting, thanks to those who attended in spirit and thanks to Gergana for making the Сладка баница! Don’t forget to burn your fortunes before next year so that they all come true.

By Isla

Theory, meta-analyses and stylised facts in ecology

What is a theory? Is ecology theory-poor and if yes, why? What are the paths to theory development in ecology? Meta-analyses? Data syntheses? Big data? Stylised facts? These are the questions we set out to discuss during  this week’s lab meeting. We extended an invitation to EdGE (the EdEN discussion Group for Ecology) to get more diverse perspectives, and shared our thoughts on these topics, largely inspired by Dynamic Ecology’s posts about stylised facts in ecology and why meta-analyses in ecology often don’t lead to theoretical insight. We also added in Marquet et al.’s 2014 paper “On Theory in Ecology” into our discussion, bringing forward many thoughts on the different types of theory in ecology, and whether theory in ecology is possible to begin with.

We defined theory as a hierarchical framework of postulates, based on a number of assumptions, and leading to a set of predictions. As we set out to do our research, we can use theory as the base on which you build your hypotheses – and if you find enough support for your hypotheses, in time they might grow into a theory, thus prompting more hypotheses – a self-propelling cycle of gathering empirical evidence and developing theory. But is the cycle broken, with empirical evidence (or its synthesis) becoming an endpoint that prompts little theoretical insight?


We had a mix of undergraduates, PhD students and PIs in the room, and it was interesting to see how our thoughts varied based on our career stage. We started off with a quick quiz on 1) whether we had heard of the theories covered in the paper before, and 2) whether we had thought deeply about them. Here are the results!

How do we find out about theories in ecology to begin with? It was interesting to note that at least in the ecology curriculum here at the University of Edinburgh, most theories are taught pretty late (3rd and 4th year), and many don’t make it into the curriculum to begin with. How do we decide which theories are worth teaching about? Linking back to Marquet et al. 2014, should we be focusing on teaching the most efficient theories? Should we teach ecological theories in year 1?

From our experience, a lot of ecologists don’t like to think about theory too much – after all, ecology is so complex, are generalisations even possible? Some might say yes! We did, however, wonder what is the role of theory in ecology, if it seldom holds true across organisms, ecosystems, biomes. But then again, theories don’t need to be always right to be useful. Neutral theory, for example, can be thought of as a strawman idea that has spurred many interesting discussions (and research) on how reality differs from the simple pattern described by the theory.

We thought that while theories can be useful, a really strong emphasis on theory can bring you astray – stuck in mathematical equations and too far from the real world. According to the undergraduate participants in our discussion, theories are great for conceptualising ecological processes and thinking about how patterns can be generalised across time and space. We then discussed the difference between meta-analyses and data syntheses, with our group being predominantly being in preference of data syntheses – perhaps they are one of the paths towards the development of more ecological theory. Has that happened in the past? Yes! We used species-area curve relationships  that led to the development of the Island Biogeography theory as an example.

So why isn’t there more ecological theory? We thought of a simple answer – ecologists like to hang out outside. We briefly imagined what first year ecology students would say if when they showed up for the Field Ecology course, where you get to run up and down the Pentland Hills and collect data, we tell them that instead, we will be staying inside, thinking, doing lots of maths, and learning how to develop theory. Most of us went into ecology because we love the natural world and want to 1) learn more about it, and 2) experience it relatively often.  Fieldwork is the highlight of ecology for many of us (though for some of us it’s a tie between fieldwork and coding!), and that, together with all the noise in our data and the many complexities of our field, makes us less likely to engage deeply with theoretical work. Finally, most of us are not exposed to much math, especially at the start of our careers, which again makes it hard to think about how we can turn empirical evidence into theory.

Nevertheless, we are jealous of evolutionary biology, where theories abound! We talked about why that is, reaching the conclusion that theory prompts more theory – because in evolutionary biology there is one major unifying theory, other theories can quickly follow from that – a self-propagating cycle.

Are ecologists too critical? For every theory that tries to make its way, there most probably be someone who says that doesn’t apply to their study organism/system. We thought that we shouldn’t expect theories to always be true, instead we should use them as a stepping stone to build our future work.

Coming back to stylised facts, which may or may not lead to theory, we went around the room and each thought of a stylised fact from our field:

  • Plant growth is more temperature sensitive in wetter vs. drier sites (Soil moisture hypothesis, Myers-Smith et al. 2015Ackerman et al. 2016)
  • Biotic interactions shift from negative to positive with increasing environmental severity (Stress gradient hypothesis, Bertness and Callaway 1994)
  • Negative frequency dependence driven by higher trophic levels can maintain diversity (Paine 1966 and the Janzen–Connell hypothesis)
  • Phenology responses to global change drivers are stronger at lower throphic levels than higher (Thackeray et al. 2016).
  • Decomposition has a saturating relationship with temperature (e.g., Sierra et al. 2015).
  • Bigger and older trees are more prone to damage, increasing fungal infection rates (Basham 1958).
  • Plants with bigger foliar volume have more biomass (Greaves et al. 2015Cunliffe et al. 2016).
  • Remotely-sensed plant attributes can’t be accurately estimated at scales finer than the individual level (Cunliffe et al. in prep).
  • Big trees suffer more than little trees in rainforests experiencing drought (Rowland et al. 2015).
  • As the trait diversity of plant communities increases, so does the resource usage efficiency (Lasky et al. 2014).
  • Things that grow fast rot fast (Cornelissen et al. 2007).
  • The effect of agri-environment schemes is moderated by landscape complexity (e.g. Concepción et al. 2008).
  • The effectiveness of conservation interventions is proportionate to the ecological contrast they create (or their additionality) (e.g. Maron et al. 2013).

We finished our discussion where we started – at the definition of what stylised facts are, and whether there is one universal definition – thus showing that ecologists do care about generalisation!

The role of β-diversity in conservation

What indicators should we use in conservation? Why do different biodiversity indicators seem to disagree? What is the role of beta-diversity in conservation? This week we extended our usual TeamShrub lab meeting to hold a discussion on two recent biodiversity papers, as part of the EdEN (Edinburgh Ecology Network) EdGE (EdEN Discussion Group for Ecology) meetings. We talked about what are the best indicators to assess biodiversity change, whether there is a place for β-diversity metrics in guiding conservation actions, and why do different indicators of biodiversity change seem to disagree with one another.

We all had an interesting and jolly discussion, inspired by the following papers:

Socolar, Jacob B., et al. “How should beta-diversity inform biodiversity conservation?.” Trends in ecology & evolution 31.1 (2016): 67-80.

Hill, S. L.L., Harfoot, M., Purvis, A., Purves, D. W., Collen, B., Newbold, T., Burgess, N. D. and Mace, G. M. (2016), Reconciling Biodiversity Indicators to Guide Understanding and Action. CONSERVATION LETTERS, 9: 405–412. doi:10.1111/conl.12291


As we work in the Arctic, we appreciated how the papers recognised the fact that regions which are not particularly rich in biodiversity still deserve to be on the conservation radar.

We started off by identifying what β-diversity is and how we measure it – we discussed temporal β-diversity (how has species composition changed through time) and spatial β-diversity (commonly known as just beta-diversity, how do communities differ across space – i.e. measures of similarities, etc.) and what are the implications of using β-diversity metrics in conservation. We can mostly agree that one of the goals of conservation is to maximise biodiversity, but what diversity? Alpha, beta, gamma?

Unlike α-diversity (diversity at the local scale) and γ-diversity (diversity at the global scale), β-diversity does not refer to a spatial extent, but to the comparison between communities, and as such is is often used as an indicator of biotic homogenisation.

Calculating β-diversity allows us to understand biodiversity loss from a different perspective – we can look beyond species richness increasing or decreasing, and think about whether communities are becoming more similar, and what the implications of that might be for ecosystem functionality and the provision of ecosystem services. Nevertheless, β-diversity has to be used carefully – if two communities are both changing, β-diversity might stay the same (i.e. they might still have the same amount of species in common), but their current species composition might have changed. We also discussed how increasing the spatial extent of agri-environment management (or other conservation measures) might not always have the desired outcomes – such actions might decrease β-diversity by favouring the same set of species over large spatial extents. Communities can shift in many ways, which don’t necessarily fit in the biodiversity loss toolbox we most often use.

Can we use beta-diversity to link local scale observations to global scale inferences on biodiversity trends?

We thought that this is theoretically a great idea, but logistically, there are difficulties in going from the local scale observations to inferences on γ-diversity – gaps in the data, understudied regions, etc. We also pondered the dangers of promoting rare species at the expense of common species, and also what about disturbance-tolerating species? It is easy to say that e.g. Plot1 has lost/gained one species, but hard to have confidence in how the world has changed over time. Perhaps it is β-diversity that will help us link our local-scale observations to inferences on the global scale.

By Gergana