Friday, 24 October 2014

Insect Pollinators Initiative Dissemination Event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The National Pollinator Strategy will be launched this Autumn.

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

Related CEH news stories

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

Ecologists get first bumblebees' eye view of the landscape

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

Butterfly tennis balls!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melanie Gibbs

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

Additional information

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

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Sharing the planet: Hen harrier conservation and grouse shooting

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

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

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

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

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

Additional information

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Ladybirds, fungi and alien invaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Invasive alien quagga mussel arrives in UK

The invasive alien quagga mussel (Dreissena rostriformis bugensis) has arrived in the UK. The mussel was found in Wraysbury Reservoir and the Wraysbury River, a tributary of the River Colne, near Egham, Surrey.

Top threat

Earlier this year a CEH-led invasive alien species horizon scanning exercise identified the quagga mussel as the top ranking threat to the UK’s biodiversity. The study, published in Global Change Biologyconcluded that the mussel poses a high risk because it is an ecosystem engineer with the potential to disrupt the ecological function of freshwater environments.

The horizon scanning exercise was carried out by scientists from more than 20 research institutes and universities with expertise on invasive alien species. It aimed to collate a list of invasive alien species not yet established within Britain but anticipated to arrive, establish and threaten biodiversity within five years.

Invasive mussels clogging a propeller. As well as altering ecosystems, the quagga mussel
can block pipes, smother boat hulls and other structures,
Photo: Government of Alberta (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Other high risk species

In addition to the quagga mussel the exercise identified a further 29 high risk species, including the Sacred ibis, the Brush clawed shore crab, the Asian hornet, and the American water-milfoil. Since the paper was published, the first UK record of the non-native Asian shore crab (Hemigrapsus sanguineus), which was included in the top 10 potential threats, has been received.

How to record sightings

An alert system operates within the UK for invasive species. The latest species alerts can be found here. If you see the quagga mussel or any other invasive alien species of concern, please report your sighting via iRecord:

More information

The horizon scanning exercise was published in the scientific journal Global Change Biology. The paper is open access.

Full paper reference: Helen E. Roy, Jodey Peyton, David C. Aldridge, Tristan Bantock, Tim M. Blackburn, Robert Britton, Paul Clark, Elizabeth Cook, Katharina Dehnen-Schmutz, Trevor Dines, Michael Dobson, François Edwards, Colin Harrower, Martin C. Harvey, Dan Minchin, David G. Noble, Dave Parrott, Michael J.O. Pocock, Chris D. Preston, Sugoto Roy, Andrew Salisbury, Karsten Schönrogge, Jack Sewell, Richard H. Shaw , Paul Stebbing, Alan J. A. Stewart, Kevin J. Walker (2014) Horizon-scanning for invasive alien species with the potential to threaten biodiversity in Great Britain. Global Change Biology DOI: 10.1111/gcb.12603 (open access)

CEH news story:  Top 30 high risk invasive alien species with potential to threaten British biodiversity identified by scientists

Monday, 6 October 2014

Solar dimming and river flows - background to new paper

A new Met Office-led paper has just been published in the journal Nature Geoscience, entitled “Detection of solar dimming and brightening effects on Northern Hemisphere river flow” by Nic Gedney et al.

Chris Huntingford, who is a co-author, writes:

“In any debate surrounding large-scale environmental change, invariably there is discussion as to the effect of increasing levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases. This is particularly in terms of temperature change, and much attention has been placed on fusing together models and data to identify whether there is a human influence on the climate system. Such analysis (often called “detection and attribution”) does suggest that to a high level of confidence, fossil fuel burning has altered the climatic state by increasing atmospheric concentrations of gases such as carbon dioxide. However these analyses of temperature measurements also confirm that an atmospheric aerosol signal is present. The raised level of such particulates, regionally at least, has a partial cooling offset of global warming. Additionally higher aerosol concentrations are known to reduce the amount of the Sun’s light and energy reaching the Earth’s surface.

In this study we accept that both raised greenhouse gas concentrations and aerosols alter meteorological conditions (via temperature levels and indirectly rainfall), which in turn will influence river flows. However to confirm the presence of any aerosol signal, here we instead focus specifically on the impact of changes in sunlight and energy reaching the land surface, and on implications for observed river flows in multiple basins in Northern Hemisphere industrialised areas. This is through the so-called “dimming” and subsequent “brightening” period, the latter a consequence of clean-air acts in many regions.

In our study, we find that when we use a river runoff model, forced with and without estimates of aerosol-induced changes in surface shortwave radiation (i.e. surface energy), then we can only fully explain the river flow data once the aerosol effect is included. Lower surface energy tends to enhance river flows to levels higher than they might otherwise have been. This is because this suppresses water loss by evaporation across the land surface. We can see this effect over Central Europe, in the periods of major solar dimming.

A major focus on climate change will always remain as characterising changes in surface temperature. However to additionally observe and explain anthropogenic influences in a key impact such as river flows does raise confidence in ability to model our changing environment. Such confidence is required, in order to then be able to rely on future computer-based projections and the role they may play in underpinning future policy on the global environment.”

The paper authors are from the Met Office, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, University of Reading, Laboratoire de Météorologie Dynamique in France, and the University of Exeter.

Chris Huntingford is a Climate Modeller at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

Additional information

Air pollution increases river flows - CEH news story

Paper details:

Detection of solar dimming and brightening effects on Northern Hemisphere river flow.
Gedney, N., Huntingford, C., Weedon, G.P., Bellouin, N., Boucher, O. and Cox, P.M. (2014), Nature Geoscience, doi: 10.1038/NGEO2263

Staff page of Dr Chris Huntingford, CEH