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


Our BES Annual Meeting highlights

Christmas arrived early for Jakob and I – we attended the British Ecological Society Annual Meeting in Liverpool at the start of December and got to enjoy the jolly and festive atmosphere of hundreds of ecologists keen to share their research. Having just wrapped up Coding Club for 2016, it seemed very appropriate to start the BES conference with their Best Practices for Code Archiving workshop. I was very keen to learn more about code archiving, but I also wanted to see how other people teach coding and organise workshops. I will be leading a GitHub and version control workshop for Coding Club soon, and I’m looking forward to sharing the knowledge and skills I gained at BES with the Coding Club members.

czacjgzwiaalapbThe Coding workshop communicated a great message – writing reproducible code and archiving it is not hard. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but it’s certainly not hard, either, and it’s something we all could (should) do. I particularly liked this graph, as it conveys what we’ve been trying to tell Coding Club members (and ourselves) – little investments in learning good coding practices can deliver big benefits. It’s even better if there is a community around you which is also keen to learn. When I was wrapping up my dissertation, I was feeling a bit intimidated by Markdown and decided that I couldn’t learn it in a day (since the dissertation was due the following day). This year, I went to a Markdown workshop led by PhD students from the Australian National University, and after and hour, I could make a beautiful report of my code and results. It was great to see students pick up Markdown quickly at the Coding Club workshop, too – if you are keen to learn it as well, check out our online tutorial here. Similarly, syncing RStudio with GitHub doesn’t take long, and is a great way to keep track of your code and its many versions (you can check out Coding Club’s Github tutorial here).

There were many great talks in the following days, and I was particularly impressed by the PhD talks. It was so interesting to learn about Francesca Mancini‘s interdisciplinary conservation research on how social media images can be used to infer eco-tourism hotspots – and good to know that my photos on Flickr could have been used for science! Sarah Scriven gave a very well presented talk on butterfly movement through oil palm plantations (and in the spirit of #BEScode, the data and code are publicly available). Great to highlight not just connectivity between fragmented landscapes, but also functional connectivity – even if butterflies can move through agricultural land, their larval host plants might not occur there, thus preventing breeding.

czjqnpewiaa8hnmThe conference was great at prompting me to think about topics that hadn’t crossed my mind before – for example, whether mountain bikes are good at seed dispersal, and what implications that might have for plant colonisation and perhaps even the spread of invasive species. Prof Anne Chao delivered a fantastic plenary talk on biodiversity estimators and rarefaction, from which we all learned a lot, and I’ve put down exploring the R package, iNEXT, as a reward for after I’ve finished the first draft of my manuscript. You can also check out their Shiny app online, where you can upload your own data and get plots and values for the different biodiversity estimators. I also got to meet Prof Chao at the Meet the Speaker session after the plenary talk, which only inspired me further for biodiversity analyses.

Chatting with keen ecologists over lunch was super fun (and the food was tasty, too!), the Science Comedy Slam was hilarious, and in general we loved the dynamic of the whole conference – we came home inspired and thankful that we get to be a part of the ecology research community.

By Gergana and Jakob

Professor Lord Stern: We haven’t managed to communicate the urgency of climate change…

I am on the train zooming up the East Coast from London to Edinburgh. It’s a cold and crisp November day and it really doesn’t feel like we’re in the warmest year since records began, but still my mind is busy thinking about Climate Change. Last night I attended the Carbon Trust’s Annual Innovation lecture by Professor Lord Stern from the London School of Economics. Professor Stern will be known to many of you for the Stern Review on the economics of climate change published in 2006. In the report, he discusses climate change as the largest market failure that the world has ever seen, mainly because we’re not accounting for the environmental costs of burning fossil fuels.

Ten years later and having just returned from the COP22 in Marrakesh, Prof Lord Stern presented a refined and updated summary of his analysis of the economics of climate change. The messages where clear: If we want to tackle climate change, we need to tackle world poverty as we can’t separate one from the other. Innovation is key, but not just restricted to technology, we also need to be innovative in our policies, our economies and our ways of living. We need to correct for the market failures associated with not having to pay for the environmental costs of fossil fuels, otherwise we will create extraordinary costs in the future, threatening us and future generations. Economically speaking, it simply makes sense to invest now.

The solutions that Professor Stern suggested were familiar: apply a carbon tax, promote innovation in sustainable infrastructure, tackle energy efficiency etc. But what really struck me was that again and again he highlighted the urgency at which we will have to implement these solutions. The policy decisions of the next 10 years will determine what kind of climate we will be living in in the future. If we get it wrong now, it is unlikely that we will be able to correct for it afterwards and the associated human and economic costs will be incredibly high. This is something that many of us global change scientists have been worried about for a long time and the gloomy mood that settles over the coffee room after someone mentions the speed of climate change is too familiar to many of us.

Professor Stern was clear that this is one of the biggest failures of the discourse so far: We haven’t managed to communicate the urgency of climate change well enough! And here is where I see us global change scientists come in. We might not be able to advise on detailed policies, innovation strategies and market economies, but we can do much better at communicating the changes that we observe and the consequences that they might have in the long run. This is something that we at Team Shrub feel quite passionate about, but I think we have a lot to improve and often I find myself wondering how to best go about it. Isla discussed this very nicely at the end of her Our Changing World lecture at the beginning of the month.

I think it is easy to forget the power of storytelling and personal connections when we’re under the pressure of scientific publication high up on our ivory tower. Many times, I have been surprised by the amount of interest and the positive responses that we receive when speaking to strangers about our work in the Arctic, be it a member of the Carbon Trust at the canapés after the lecture or a mining engineer on holiday in Alaska. We can connect to people and we do have to make more of that!

In that sense, I would like to finish on a positive note and quote Professor Lord Stern who, after highlighting the positive developments of the recent years including the fast ratification of the Paris agreement and China’s commitment to tackling climate change, contemplated about the future environmental policy of America’s increasingly mellowing president-elect: “I do not know… we do not know… and probably he doesn’t know”. So let’s be open and optimistic!

By Jakob

I would like to thank the NERC E3 Innovation Programme for funding my travels to London; Susan Davies and Laura Scotland from the ECCI for organising it all and Zack, Emil, Richard and Sophie for all the great discussions around it.  

Professor Lord Stern’s lecture will be available on the Carbon Trust’s YouTube Channel.

Inspiring Young Scientists

This week, TeamShrub and Airborne GeoSciences were at Our Dynamic Earth for the Inspiring Young Scientists Event ‘The Universe is Your Oyster’. There were 2201 guests at the event including youth of all ages and their parents on the 16 and 17 October 2016.

At our table we had a selection of drones, a flight simulator, photographs and videos of our Arctic adventures, and everything from our Tundra Top Trumps game, Thermokarst the Dragon to the TeamShrub mascot of Otto the Walrus! Just next door were other folks from the School of GeoSciences with jelly volcanoes, cabbage juice and fun activities to illustrate ocean acidification, ocean currents and volcanic eruptions. Down the way, Sophie Flack had a table with her “carbon sink”, an actual sink with tropical plants planted in it, illustrating an eddy covariance town in a tropical rain forest.

It was a very fun event, and hopefully over the two days we managed to inspire some young scientists! Thanks to Andy for organising and coordinating the TeamShrub display and to Andy, Sandra, Jakob, Haydn and Tom from AirBorne GeoSciences for proudly donning their purple TeamShrub t-shirts to represent Arctic science using drones at the event!

By Isla

Here is the video that Dynamic Earth put together about the entire event, TeamShrub features at minute 2:15.

The Pump Saga

I’m reminded of this XKCD comic when I think of our tribulations with the Tony Gabowski Common Garden water pump. Countless hours have been spent getting this purported timesaver to work properly, although hopefully it will save time in future years, maybe … I hope.

The water level of Kluane Lake has dropped by over a metre this year, the result of glacial retreat and rapid spring melting (Figure 1). Until recently, we had been collecting water in buckets from the lake to feed to our experimental willows in the Common Garden, but this will become harder if the lake level continues to drop. So, as a slightly hypocritical response to our climate change woes, we bought a petrol-driven pump and loads of plastic piping to carry water up to the garden.


Getting the pump to work was easy. Jakob ordered everything back in Edinburgh and the whole lot was waiting for us when Team Drone rolled up in Kluane. Like that Pulp song, the whole thing was assembled quickly, and with a whoosh the lake water raced from lake to barrels, and a summer of barrel rolling and bucket carrying was saved.


Pump the first

Of course, if that was the end, this would be a rather boring saga. Instead, the pump never turned on a second time. In fact, it took around six weeks to get the right adaptors and figure out how the pump actually functioned.

  1. The first pump broke. Like a car from the ’90s, something inside it just gave up. We returned the pump to a full refund and a sense of defeat.
  2. But all was saved! Tony Grabowski, of Yukon and taxidermy fame, knew someone who had won a pump but it was broken. They were happy to give it to us; all we needed to do was repair it. No problem. So Team Kluane arrived on the scene to a high quality, fully functioning pump, and a simple instruction from Jakob: you probably need to buy some more hose.
  3. Feeling confident with such a shining specimen of a pump, plus a brand spanking new intake hose, Team Kluane strode down to the common garden with an unusual sense of purpose. Only to find out hose was not nearly long enough. Damn.
  4. Still you know what they say, if at first your hoses are too short, find some more hose. Lance, lord of the rugby field, to the rescue! With hose lying around a’plenty, we soon borrowed enough to make twice the distance from the lake to the pump. Surely this time!Except the hoses didn’t actually connected to the pump. Or each other. Another defeat.
  5. Lots of internet research followed by complicated diagrams and reciting product numbers in phonetic alphabet to Yukon Pump (You KAN Pump!) provided us with all the right equipment and enough hose to futureproof the pump if the lake level drops even further. Sure, we were now going up to Qikiqtaruk, so the middle month of the summer required water hauling, but when we got back all would be well.We got back and all was well. The custom made hose and parts were once more waiting for us, and on our first try we eagerly set everything up. This time!
  6. Only to realise that we didn’t actually know how to turn the pump on, forgetting that we were researchers and not very practically minded.


    John struggling with the pump

  7. A brief lesson on priming from Lance and this time the pump stuttered into life. With a cheer, John and Sandra made clear that water was rushing through the hoses up from the lake to the barrels, clear and cold and fresh, and…not coming out the other end. Confused stood I, holding the dry end of the hose and wondering if it might have anything to do with that new water feature over there in the bushes.It turned out that a hungry ground squirrel had chewed through the hose in our absence. So off we went back to the workshop to fix it. I say we. You can probably guess who actually fixed it (his name begins with L).
  8. Finally, YES!! On our sixth try the pump worked, filling the water barrels in minutes. SUCCESS!

Unfortunately by this time the field season was over and we didn’t need to water any more. And since this get rather cold in the winter up there we couldn’t leave water in the barrels lest they freeze and split.

And so our saga must end: with barrels of water being poured away at one end of the Common Garden. A time saver indeed.

There’s always next year!

Table 1 – Cost-benefit analysis for the pump.

Pros Cons
A pump means you don’t have to walk buckets of water from the lake Canadians can’t understand British people on the phone
A pump can be used in a water fight to great effect Using a pump may speed up climate change
Pump piping is a great source of nutrients for ground squirrels Not knowing how to turn on the pump made us feel really stupid
Getting the pump to work provides a source of entertainment for bored researchers that have finished all their fieldwork.

Until next year…

By John and Haydn

Last two weeks – countdown

So finally we came to the end of our Qikiqtaruk field season; it has been an incredible time for the team, enjoying and enduring many fantastic experiences over the last 62 days.

This is an account of some of the adventures of our last two weeks on the island after we had to say farewell to the Kluane Crew and Jeff who headed back south to Kluane to sort out the last of the data collection at our other field site, or in the case of Jeff, head back to his other life.

Autumn has come to Qikiqtaruk.  The Dryas flowers have gone from twisting filaments to dispersing seeds.  The Eriophorum flowers are no longer fluffy.  The tundra is turning brown. Winter is coming!

Unfortunately, persistent thick fog stopped us from flying the drones in the last week, so our final data collection was limited to on the ground observations. Conducting the last of the phenology records, taking down the air control points in the shrub plot on the floodplain, and doing some quality DGPSing – thanks NERC Geophysical Equipment Facility for the excellent kit!

When the fog lifted a bit, we were able to complete some low-level flights with our trainee pilots Santo and Isla with the outreach drone (a 3DR IRIS+), both of whom flew very well most of the time – perhaps soon they will be piloting their own drone teams?

One of the adventures of the last two weeks was meeting up with the Top-to-Top sailing crew – a family from Switzerland who have been sailing around the world for the past 15 years to teach about climate change and protecting the planet – and going for a spin out on their sailing boat!  Andy even helmed the ship, while the rest of us managed not to get hit by the boom and sails as we were tacking. It was great to make new and unexpected friends in the Arctic.  You can follow their adventures on their blog.

Preparing for the departure kept us busy for our final days – breaking camp, winterising the supplies to be left on the island, discharging >100 Amp hours from the 31 drone batteries to bring them to a safe charge for transport and storage, and last but not least making a commemorative plaque of the time we spent here. The latter was added to the large collection on the wall in the Hunters and Trappers cabin. Our theme this year was a ten pointed antler for each of the nine members of the team plus Mansa the dog.  Each person was matched with one of each of the ten willow species of Qikiqtaruk: Salix pulchra, richardsonii, arctica, glauca, niphoclada, alexensis, reticulata, polaris, phlebophyla, and the newest species to be discovered on the island this summer arctophila. We also left some of the treasures that we found on the island such as Jakob’s discovery of a clay pipe that now resides in the display cases and a potentially 10,000-year-old plus ancient horse jaw bone and hoof?

On our final full day on the island, after our flight was cancelled due to the weather, we had the opportunity to join the rangers Sam and Paden on a boat patrol around Qikiqtaruk. We were lucky enough to have some fantastic wildlife viewings, seeing many seals, three musk oxen and two grizzly bears. One of the bears was looking very well fed having dug up some food on the beach and the second was swimming between Advalek Spit and the mainland. Despite much eager searching we didn’t see any more Bowhead whales, although they had been spotted breaching on our route just minutes ahead of us by Cameron from his vantage point high on Collinson Head. This boat ride was reminiscent of a very sunny one the week before with the combined crews of the rangers, AWI and TeamShrub.

In the end our pickup was only delayed by 30 hours, but being on standby to move our large pile of equipment out from ‘dry’ storage to the runway at a moment’s notice was a little frustrating. A cut fibre optic cable in Edmonton knocked out phones-communications in the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut, which made communication with Aklak (the charter company) a little harder, but eventually we received confirmation via email that the flight was on. Our delay did have a silver lining though, in the form of Murray the Musk Ox, who wondered down to Simpson Point for a quick dip in the sea and a casual stroll back through the middle of camp. He came pretty close to us and judging from the smell, he certainly needed the wash!

Once the kit was loaded, we bid farewell to our island home and community, and boarded the plane. Even the pair of snowy owls came down to see us off.  The flight back was low under the cloud, with the team reflecting on what we’d achieved over the last two months. Back in Inuvik we were surprised to be greeted by so many folks: Richard Gordon, head park ranger at Yukon Parks, Rob Strong, the North-Wright Airways pilot that we saw so much of while on Qikiqtaruk and who even came out to see us flying the drones in the field, Jay and Sarah from Parks Canada, John from dispatch at Aklak Air, John from Driving Force delivering our truck like a hero! Time for a quick 18-hour turnaround, packing kit away into storage in Inuvik, preparing various shipments for dispatch, hanging out with our fellow Northern researcher friends at the ARI row houses and then a few hours’ sleep before heading further south…

By Andy and Isla

36-inches of Scottish Feast blog text

Dear Reader, I invite you — if you are of the age and comfortably seated — to draw yourself a wee dram of a lovely single malt (or even a high-quality blend); to marinate yourself into the appropriate mindset, and brace yourself for the lengthy read (sry..).

A merry company raises their goblets and their multi-dialected voices in a cheerful ‘Och Aye!’ to mark the first of many cheers of the evening of the 2016 Qikiqtaryuk Scottish Feast. *Editor’s note: ‘Och Aye!’ or ‘Ahoy!’ is a Qikiqtaryuk cheers adopted in the 2015 Feast through a mix of fortunate misunderstandings on the intricacies of the Scots’ languages – just as the Gaelic ’sláinte’ turned to ‘sshhllllnn..?’*.

The 2016 Scottish Feast was definitely that of Downright Majestic speech, toast, poem, ode and song. Everyone took their allocated titles (the 2016 Feast schedule found below), with great dedication and pride. After the night’s Chairman (author) warmly welcomed everyone to shut up and listen; the Selkirk Grace was recited – by the night’s Clergyman John Godlee himself.

Some hae meat an canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit

The Haggis and other local delectable foodstuffs were then piped in by an impressive a cappella pipe-band consisting of the entirety of the Qikiqtarmiut (‘people of the island’), this year with a rendition of ‘Scotland the Brave’. At this hour, the party people were already drooling over their plates, with their eyes busily indulging upon the many delicacies perched on the table. However, there were formalities yet. Marek (from AWI’s Polish Reinforcements Division) made a great speech in appreciation of the Haggis and it’s Polish equivalent, the Kaszanka, borrowing selectively from the ‘To a Haggis’ by Rabbie Burns. Before the Qikiqtarmiut were unleashed upon the Feast, England’s own Andrew Cunliffe was invited to deliver ‘The Loyal Toast’ in respect of the Queen, her supreme rule in the Commonwealth (which even Qikiqtaryuk is a part of), and her Fertile German Blood (in celebration of the new Royal Baby, Charlotte).

The spread across the table was splendid and abundant indeed. Among the many scrumptious dishes were sauerkraut, stovies, neeps, tatties, roasted parsnip and carrot, green long beans, scones, buttered peas and local game followed by apple crumble, Hugues’ ‘twice-cooked cake’ and Ricky Joe’s famous lemon meringue pie. Hands were flitting around the table in attempt to secure the juiciest pieces and freshest of green leaves, all the while making sure everyone got their fair share (which ended up being quite a pointless endeavour, as left overs fed Team Shrub for the coming two days).

The Qikiqtaryuk – Herschel Island Scottish Feast is also often referred to as Qikiqtaryuk Burn’s Supper, as the greatest Scottish gathering in the Calendar Year is the Robert Burn’s Dinner. In the Motherland this takes place on Robert Burn’s Day (25th of January), and usually exactly a 6-month after on the island. Our feast took place but a week after the 220th anniversary of Burn’s death (21st of July 1796). Thusly, in the Immortal Memory of Rabbie Burns, the Principal Speaker, Hughes Lantuit (head of the Alfred Wegener Institute crew) gave his respects to this great hero and invited him to bless us with great strength and fortune; including a wish for shrubs to grow fists to help us fight Climate Change. *Editor’s note: the first Robert Burns’ Supper was held on the Anniversary of his death by his friends, and not his birth, as it is currently celebrated*. In return, Team Shrub’s own token German, Jakob Assmann, eloquently and in great rhymes complimented the Principal Speaker, and then gave way for Edward the Ranger to Toast the Wildlife that had given their life to be served on our table that night.

Many people went to great lengths to deliver a memorable oration at each of their turns, but perhaps the most successful at this was the Team Shrub Magnum P.I., Isla Myers-Smith, who had composed and written a song to be known as: ‘Whiskey it is a Superior Drink’. The chorus echoed for days in the many nooks and cupboards within the Community house and likewise within the corners our minds…

Oh, whiskey it s a superior drink,
It is golden as the day is lang,
With a dram in your hand you can sip and think,
Smooth, peaty or terrible strang

*Editor’s note: lang = long, and strang = strong, the length of day in the song refers to the length of an Arctic summer’s day, 24h*

After the final clash of cup on cup and fainting away of laughter, Samuel stepped up to toast the Lassies (the QikiqtarMEOWt). With his eloquent delivery, minimal testiculation and glistening smile he not only moved the womenfolk to tears of absolute emotion, but found the feminine nuclei in all of us menfolk, and touched us all deeply. The Reply given by Sandra and Eleanor, in turn praised the island’s men. And though the compliments were not as readily available from the lyric of their salute as from Sammy’s, and the jibes and joshing were a bit more plentiful, the girls (in the end) did not fail to bring forth a sense of pride and delight in the muscly heads of us Lads.

After a moment of silence (of an efficient two seconds) for the fallen drones out there in the world, Julian read out loud his newest love letter addressed to the Arctic Turd (Jeff Kerby’s FX-61 Phantom fixed wing UAV), or as Julian would have named it: ‘The Polar Thunderbird’. As Ricky Joe had gone to sleep early that evening, instead of toasting the local fauna (as was allocated for Ricky), the company cheered his lemon meringue pie, and his superior traditional knowledge in his absence. Much stirred by the earlier confession of love toward his drone, Jeff performed a whimsical ode to our lavish outdoor gear, especially that of Fjällraven and Norrea, and the wonder of the G-1000 fabric (of which the cat’s pyjamas are surely made).

Sandra and John then took their turn to appreciate the glorious AWI flume, decorating West Ice Creek, and collecting all sorts of data (supposedly). The flume has lasted many climate event and season and was rightfully at the centre of all praise. However, equally tested in the climate and season are the point framers and other victims of the Qikiqtaryuk Ecological Monitoring Protocols, which were then oded by AWI’s superb (and only) lassie, Caro. *Editor’s note: the word ‘victim’ was used here simply to punctuate witty prose. Team Shrub loves ecological monitoring in all of its forms. The long-term data from these protocols is unparalleled in its statistical strength and value*. After the lengthy methodology back-patting was over, Eleanor called everyone to raise their cups in merit to the cooks and sous chefs, and in apology to the dish washers about to climb the Mt. Logan of dirty feast pots, plates and pans.

There was yet one speech, saved rightfully to last. Haydn had spent three days in preparation of this ode. The Ode to the Decomposing Glory of the Dead Beluga. At this moment it is hard to do the Ode justice in any other way than copying an excerpt of it here. *Editor’s note: this ode refers back to the exciting event about five days before, when a deceased beluga whale was found on the beach next to camp, and had to be dragged onto the other side of the island, to keep hungry bears away from camp. Edward the Ranger also removed the whale’s jaw to send it for analysis to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, DFO. Additionally, Haydn had earlier, mistakenly, described the full-grown whale as being 36 inch (91 centimetres) long (136 in for reals)*:

…Thirty six inches long from your nose to your tail!
Where there ‘ere such a beast! Where there ‘ere such a whale!
Thirty six inches long from your tail to your nose!
Or perhaps one three six. Ach I dinnae suppose
You saw it! The sicht were a feast on the eye
The monster of Herschel, beast of Qikiqtar-aye
For a moment twas almost I knew, staring into your maw,
As you smiled sweet torment. The Ed cut off yer jaw.

So over was the feast. But over was not the night. As the plates were gathered and hidden into the kitchen for later torture, the company gathered into the Community Hall inner museum. Here, Ed the Ranger, performed Inuvialuit Drum Dancing, impressing us all. These dances describe animals and activities, e.g. bathing water fowl, seal hide tanning and harpooning among others. After the applauses, breath-catching and filling of cups, the jolly assembly moved to the outside, to engage in Ceilidh dancing. Dancing to the instruction of Jakob and to the melody of Isla’s viola and Sammy’s guitar, everyone made brave attempts to dance correctly. A few correct steps were hit, and many spins spun, during the Gay Gordon’s. The ‘next level’ was reached during ‘Strip the Willow’, which highlighted some great G-force-16-spinning (in the hands of Andy and Marek) and bruised arms for some. Everyone survived the event with a smile on their face, however, only to be forced to wipe it off; as it was time for Animal Muk. Animal Muk is a traditional Inuvialuit game where the crowd forms a circle, and one person in the middle tries to personify an Arctic animal (for example the Collapsing Polar Shark, reincarnated by Hugues), and make attempts to make others in the circle laugh. The one who ‘cracks’ takes the spot in the middle to summon further creature spirits. The grand finale of the evening was a magnificent bellowing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, completed with the proper crushing circle dance… But.. the eve was merely half-way… (hopefully this blog text however is already 80 percent done…phew..)

Most of the people hurried to the improvised volleyball court between the Bone House and the Mackenzie Cabin, some playing ball, with some music playing in the background and chatting lively on the sidelines. At this point, the midnight sun on the sky deceived most, and before anyone realised, the clock had hit 4am… The music jam went on for a little while longer, while some people dragged themselves to their tents and beds for a well-deserved rest. A small congregation found their way to the front of Community House, for some quality 4am to 6am log-sitting, chinwagging and scallywaging. Many great games were conjured and concocted, among them ‘Hatty Head’ and ‘Lighter Hand’. Finally, the eye-lids of even the most determined stayer-uppers and night owls started to weight them down, and reluctantly we had to call the end to the grand evening.

To those who have made it to the end of this monstrously long blog post, (I ask forgiveness for my habit to push the limits a sensible word count), I have this gift for you: a painstakingly edited version of what I’ve tried to describe above. Perhaps in this day of YouTube, Vine (still a thing?), Micky Mouse and TLDR, we at Team Shrub ought to only reach out to you, our trusty fan base (hi mom!), in the form of video. Enjoy and keep following us, not much longer to go with this year’s field season, but the blog posts will keep coming until we have run out of stories to tell! *Editor’s note: due to time and disk space constraints, the fully epic video has not made its way on the blog yet. Instead enjoy the pretty pictures, and the feast time-lapse.*

By Santeri

Top 10 Things that are Weird

We’re back!  After two months in the remote Arctic, we are reintegrating back into life in the outside world.  Sorry to be slow to get in touch with all of you out there on the interwebs – we have a lot of adjusting to do before we can get back to our former lives. Here are the top 10 things that we find weird and why:


Our arrival at the Inuvik Mike Zubko Airport and unloading the plane in the rain.

  1. Trees – or shall we call them really big shrubs. What are these tall plants that go above waist height and block the view to the horizon?  They are green, way too tall and we don’t like them (well some of us say they do, but I am writing this blog post).  Take us back to the beautiful tundra where our view is unobscured.  Haydn pined for pines when he was in the Arctic – but he wasn’t there for as long as we were and thus his view of reality is really not relevant here.

Trees – aka tall shrubs – definitely block the view.

  1. Darkness – aka night. What is this period of the no longer day where the sun disappears and it gets super dark for a while?  We have heard about these things called stars and northern lights – which are some sort of lightness during the dark, but we haven’t seen any because it has been cloudy every time it gets dark.  The darkness is awkward because you can’t find anything without using some sort of portable lighting device and it is a bit scary because you can’t see if there is a bear behind that shrub over there, or is that a shrub behind that bear over there.  I prefer the way things were back up in the Arctic with light all the time, though even up there we heard that the darkness was coming.

Darkness is coming, even in the Arctic.

  1. Running water – taps. To have water come out of a tap on demand when you turn the handle and flow into a sink is something amazing.  You can do dishes, you can wash your hands, you can fill your water bottles and kettles, you can splash yourself or your friends/enemies with water. What is also amazing is that unlike in the Arctic you don’t have to decide whether the water coming out of a tap is drinkable or not – “Is this sauna water, Inuvik water, ice water, snow water or sea water?  Perhaps I will taste it to try to find out.”

The town of Inuvik from the Twin Otter flight back.

  1. Draining water – sinks without slop buckets. It is really something else to be able to use a sink and not to have to check under the counter to see if the bucket is going to over flow.  And then to find out that you should have checked before your poured and that now the slop bucket is perilously full and you have to walk with it all the way to the slop pit without spilling the grossest of water all over yourself.  Drains are the best!
  1. Washing with ease – showers and laundry. Up on Qikiqtaqruk, it is a bit of an effort to stay clean and to wash your clothes.  Here, on the outside, you can turn on a tap and then wash yourself with water that is the perfect temperature and get clean without having to warm yourself in a sauna for an hour or brave the chilly chilly water of the Arctic ocean.  And more amazingly you can put your dirty clothes in these machines with some soap and just press a button and after a period of noisiness your clothes are clean and then into another machine, press the button and after much tumbling and more noise, your clothes are dry.  Crazy!

Our last view of the Arctic Ocean as we flew southeast to Inuvik on the Twin Otter.

  1. No radios – out of contact. How do you communicate with each other when you are in different places without channel 69, “the pleasure channel” – no joke, it is the pleasure craft channel in Canada. How can you let everyone on the island know that for example you are going to watch the Princess Bride on your computer in the Trappers cabin?  “Qikiqtaqruk, Qikiqtaqruk, this is the Trappers. We are watching the best movie ever – The Princess Bride – do you want to join?” We hear there are these things called cell phones or mobile phones, but we haven’t got back to that kind of advanced technology yet.  Instead we are just relying on yelling, which works okay in relatively close proximity. We are yet to test it in cities. We assume it will be fine.
  1. Trust worthy vegetables – no more rotting food. Not having to smell every freshies item and frozen-ish food to find out if it has gone off or not is a great luxury. Back on Qikiqtaruk our abundant food was everywhere: in “the store” in the warehouse, in a freezer that is turned off, in the propane fridge, in the Rangers’ freezer, in the ice house down in the permafrost. You had to always be thinking where your food was going to come from for each meal and whether it was okay to eat or not.  But, at least all that food was “free” once on the island!  Unlike here where you have to pay with this thing called money that mostly seems to be on these plastic cards with pin codes, that you can’t remember anymore, so you can’t actually pay, which is very awkward.

Memories of back when the freshies were fresh on Qikiqtaqruk.

  1. Now we can talk to anyone in the world – people here, people there, people via the “internet”. Life used to be very safe, we only had the people on the island and our satellite phone e-mail to communicate.  Here any stranger can just show up where ever you are and surprise you:  “Hey, I just drove here with my car.” “Hey, I just swam here from over there.” “Hey, I am just calling you on Skype.” Back on the island, you could always hear the plane coming – forewarning you and thus keeping you safe from surprises.  Though, those sailing boats were pretty stressfully surprising when they would just show up in the cove in the middle of the “night”.

The surprising arrival of the Top-to-Top sailboat, see the “last two weeks blog post” about our sailing adventures.

  1. Electricity without noise. It is pretty crazy to have unlimited electricity without the noise of a generator growling in the background ruining the Arctic silence. Here you can just plug your technology into the wall or flip a switch and a light comes on – lights they are weird too, I miss good old candles when the light was a bit dimmer.  Here, you don’t have to fill up with gas/petrol to get the electrons flowing, you don’t have to get the power chords all sorted and make sure the radios, drone batteries and computers are all charging when the genny is on.  Electricity is almost as cool as running water.

The silent Arctic in the fog  of our last week on the island with the hum of generators running in the background.

  1. And finally, the internet! Writing this blog post and posting it ourselves without having to send it out via satellite phone to someone on the “outside” who can post it for us, not being able to add in the actual photos, and then not be able to see the final product. In general, the internet is very weird. We even found that this “Google” guy who knows things better than even Isla (or so Santo says).

So, after long weighing and careful consideration, we have decided that we can stay on the outside for now, and that the good things balance out the weird and scary. It is going to be an effort trying to understand this vast modern world with its many demands: Pokemon Go, fast cars, software updates and social media… Luckily, on our return, we have found that our friends and family are still around, and have waited for our return for all of this time.  This support from our loved ones continues to make this transition back to our long-lost lives more than bearable. We are glad to be back with all of you beautiful humans and your crazy technology!

By Isla (with help from Santeri)