What’s the buzz?

A buff tailed bumblebee in the meadow at Madingley

Over the last few weeks the British countryside and particularly the gardens, woods and fields around Madingley have really come to life. From where I am sitting in my office, I can see the meadow at the back of Madingley Hall sparkling in the sun and bespeckled with pale yellow; the flowers of hundreds of cowslips. Here and there delicate pink cuckoo flowers are in bloom, providing a rich resource for springtime bees and butterflies.  Walk along one of the mowed paths through the meadow and you can see bees at work, particularly bumblebees, as they drone from flower to flower, collecting pollen and nectar for their developing nests.

Follow one of these furry little foragers back to their home and their lives appear even more remarkable. Many, like the buff-tailed bumblebee, one of our commonest species, make their nest below ground in deserted mouse holes. In the early spring the new queens emerge from hibernation and search for a new home. This is when you can see them hovering like miniature helicopters low over the ground, occasionally dropping down to inspect a likely looking hole or crevice. Soon they set up shop and start to construct cells of wax, which they provision with pollen and nectar and where they lay their eggs. As the season develops, the eggs hatch into grubs, which are fed by the young queen and grow rapidly. After a few weeks, they pupate and then emerge as new adults: the first generation of workers. Now the queen no longer leaves the nest, but stays at home laying more eggs for the workers to tend. As spring turns to summer and the nest expands, more and more workers are produced until a single colony can number several hundred individuals!

But, despite the prosperity, things are not as peaceful as they appear. As the colony grows it is time for the next generation of queens and males to be produced and now mutiny occurs. To produce these new reproductive individuals, the queen relaxes production of special pheromones by which she has been keeping the workers under control. Without these chemical shackles, anarchy breaks loose and the workers begin to lay their own eggs and can even attack and kill the queen, their mother! To think that all this life and tragedy can occur just below our feet in a Cambridgeshire garden.

With so many insects flying around the meadow at Madingley, it is easy to forget that bees and other pollinators have declined severely during the last century. What caused the dramatic loss isn’t entirely clear. The destruction of flower-rich meadows with agricultural intensification and increases in herbicide and fertiliser use were probably major factors.  But in recent years, researchers have identified another potentially serious threat. Pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are very widely used on flowering crops such as oilseed rape, not only stop colonies from growing as quickly, but also reduce the chance that foraging workers will find their way back to the nest.  Partly as a result of this growing evidence, the EU recently passed legislation to ban the use of three of these pesticides on flowering crops for the next two years.

Hopefully this initiative and the use of more biodiversity-friendly farming methods are helping to restore wild pollinator communities to their former glory. Not only are these remarkable species part of the natural world, but they carry out invaluable services for us by pollinating many of our crops. If you have a garden or even just a window box, you can also help make sure that these pollinators get enough to eat, by planting bee-friendly flowers and by not being too precious about tidying up your borders. After all, what would summer be without the buzz of bees?


If you would like to learn more about pollinators, their ecology, value for pollination and conservation, why not sign up to our weekend course on the subject starting on the 14th of June, run by pollinator professional, Dr Lynn Dicks.

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What do scientists actually do?

Trekking to fieldsites in the SAFE Project, Sabah, Malaysia.

One of the advantages of being a tropical biologist is that you have a legitimate excuse to escape the soggy shores of England for a few weeks over the winter. There’s something almost magical about stepping onto a plane in the UK, where the trees are leafless, the nights are drawing in and everyone seems to have a head cold, and disembarking in the tropics, where the humid heat hits you like a wall and everything’s in full flower. These research trips (or ‘holidays’ as one of friends irritatingly describes them) form the backbone of my research on tropical biodiversity and conservation.

Also, they really aren’t holidays. Over the weeks or months I am away, each day is carefully planned to fit into a research schedule that makes the most of my time. First there is the set up and visa chasing. In my last trip this involved a noisy and smelly week in the centre of Jakarta, running from government office to office delivering passport photos and filling in forms. Then there is travelling to the research area (often quite remote), liaising with local scientists and collaborators, and setting up research plots. Once this is done, there is

Forest view from the SAFE Project campsite, Sabah, Malaysia

the careful collection of data. In my case this usually involves surveying for different insect species, collecting specimens using standard techniques and storing and identifying them. The set-up and distribution of each survey area, the methods used and the types of insects studied are all planned well in advance; determined by the research questions being asked. Once the data is collected, the results are analysed statistically and written up for publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals.  For applied research the process doesn’t stop there. Perhaps the most important step is to make sure that findings are communicated to other organizations and individuals who can then make use of the information. For my research, presentations to the agricultural industry and conservation organisations are vital in insuring results actually inform policy and management on the ground.

This whole process of research, from the inception of a research question to planning, project design, data collection, analysis, write up, review, publication and communication is central to how science works. Most of it isn’t at all glamorous or exciting, but rather careful, balanced and reflective. Only rarely do findings lead to a sudden shift in concepts or how things operate; rather data slowly accumulates which provides support for or against a particular theory or process. As Isaac Newton put it “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” or as Hal Abelson has it “”If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders.” Science is all about communication and building on the ideas and concepts of other researchers. I sometimes wonder if this careful and interactive core of science is underplayed or ignored when science is portrayed in the media. All too often scientists appear as egg-headed intellectuals, crouching in their high-tech labs awaiting a eureka moment, or, for field biologists, charging through the tropical rainforests without apparent direction on the lookout for a cure for cancer or the discovery of a new species.

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Britain’s Largest Wildlife Reserve

A Wasp Beetle on an apple tree in our garden.

One of the great things about natural history is that you can study it anywhere. Sit down for a cup of coffee on a park bench, look down at your feet and there will be insects moving around, each one busy about its own business. A surprising number of species can be found in an average back garden. Take butterflies for example. This year in my garden I’ve seen: Peacock butterflies, Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells, Meadow Browns, Ringlets, Speckled Woods, Brimstones, Large Whites, Small Whites and Green-Veined Whites! Granted these are all common species, but this is just a small patch of suburban Cambridge. Start looking for the smaller creepy-crawlies and the list expands. The flower borders around our stretch of stubbly lawn are alive with tiny creatures. Get down on your hands and knees and peer closely at the earth, and the shady patches under plants reveal themselves to be teeming                                                           with life.

A garden orb web spider on its web, next to our patio.

In the damper areas are groups of tiny springtails, each the size of a grain of sand, but velvety and striped like a diminutive zebra. Soft and nutritious, these tiny arthropods must live in constant fear for their lives. And not without reason; voracious predators stalk the open areas among my marigolds, intent on finding their prey. My favourite are sparkly little ground beetles that have wing cases like polished black plastic and enormous alien eyes. Untiringly they make their way among the giant clods of soil, pausing to raise themselves on calloused forelegs to look around. At only a few millimetres in length, their splendid Latin name belies their minute size: Notiophilus bigattatus. But springtails aren’t defenceless. As their name implies, these Tiggers of the insect world have bottoms that are made out of springs. Or nearly so. The last few segments of their abdomen are specialised into a special appendage call a furcula, which they can lock back, like the catch of a mousetrap. If a predator attacks, they release this catch and propel themselves to safety! By the careful application of a long piece of probing grass, it is quite easy to set springtails off and watch them catapult into the air.

A tiny springtail, sitting on a piece of soil. Photo taken down a microscope.

And the list doesn’t stop there: I’ve found dozens of different species all living in our garden. It doesn’t take much to increase their numbers still further. All you need do is be a little less tidy in your garden. Leave some of your lawn to grow long and grasshoppers take up residence, filling the late summer with their zither. Plant flowers such as daisies and sedum, with their open nectar-rich blooms, and a wealth of bees, butterflies and hoverflies arrive. Best of all, dig a pond and brightly-coloured damselflies and dragonflies soar in. Even the smallest urban garden has the potential to be a minute nature reserve. What’s more these areas add up: back gardens in the UK are thought to cover about 270,000 hectares, an area over three quarters the size of Cambridgeshire! Taken together wildlife gardeners can make a real difference to wildlife in the UK. So why not relax the standards in your back garden. You could save hours by cutting back on the mowing regime and benefit wildlife as well. For me any additional effort to encourage wildlife is more than made up for by the excitement of seeing what new creature moves in. From Red Admirals to Wasp Beetles, and Garden Orb Webs to Privet Hawk moths, you never know what species you’ll see next. And all without leaving home.

If you would like to learn more about wildlife, why not sign up to some of the courses we have coming up at Madingley Hall, such as Marine biology and conservation: exploring planet ocean, Birds in spring and Wild Madingley.

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In praise of fleas

Fleas collected from our neighbour's cat.

We don’t own a cat, but a neighbour’s has decided to adopt us. Sleek and affectionate, it joins us for breakfast, curls up on the chair in our conservatory, and lounges around on the top of our rabbit’s hutch. The only trouble is that it isn’t alone. It’s brought lots of tiny friends along with it: cat fleas (Ctenocephalides felis). Still, we’re not the only ones with this problem: the number of reports of fleas infesting houses across the UK is on the up (see: Who, What, Why: Have flea numbers jumped?). This might be because milder winters don’t reduce the numbers of these pests, or perhaps because people aren’t treating their pets as often. Whatever the cause, pet owners are becoming more and more aware of these tiny insects and their antisocial ways.  We didn’t realise that our feline house-guest had parasite problems until a friend spotted a large flea, swollen with eggs, calmly making its way across the cat’s nose. We then decided to comb his fur and found dozens more. A few days later, we started getting bitten around the ankles; they were in the house.

Despite the irritation they can cause, fleas are a wonderful example of natural selection. Not for nothing have they featured in numerous evolutionary studies and in classic biological texts. Their life history is extraordinary. Female fleas can lay hundreds of eggs in a lifetime. Each tiny oval sphere takes only a day or so to hatch into a grub-like larva, which then feeds on a variety of organic matter (usually including the faeces of adult fleas) and grows quickly. At this stage in their lifecycle the fleas don’t bite animals. Once they are large enough, they form a silken cocoon and pupate inside (like a butterfly, but arguably with a less attractive outcome). After a week or so the adults emerge – often triggered by vibrations, heat or carbon dioxide that tells them a potential food-supply is nearby. In our house, all we had to do was stamp our feet on the floor boards and several of the tiny adults would come hopping in search of a meal!

The toughness and speed of fleas is startling. With their flattened bodies and hooked feet, they can move rapidly through the fur of their hosts, making them extremely difficult to catch. Once you’ve managed to get your hands on one, they aren’t easy to kill. Squeezing them between your fingers isn’t enough – open your hand and they just hop away, unhurt. Only by crushing them between your finger nails (hopefully until they pop) can you finally destroy them.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about fleas is their jump. This remarkable acrobatic ability has fascinated biologists for years, and proved quite a problem to understand. Fleas don’t just contract their muscles to jump, like we do. Rather, a clever arrangement of muscles push against special pads of rubber (called resilin), found in their legs, effectively storing up energy as the rubber distorts. By releasing a lock, the fleas allow the resilin to reform into its original shape, rapidly extending their hind-legs and propelling the insect into the air. Although the role of resilin in flea jumps had been known since the 1960s, it was only last year that some of the technicalities of how fleas jump was finally explained. A controversy had always existed as to the exact arrangement and control of the jump and whether fleas left the ground by pushing off from their trochanter (an upper bit of their legs) or their tibia and tarsi (effectively their feet).  Researchers Greg Sutton and Malcolm Burrows, based here in Cambridge, used high speed photography and cunning mathematical models to finally answer the question: fleas jump from their feet! For some beautiful footage of fleas jumping, that may make even the most ardent flea-hater think again, see DiscoveryNews.

Despite several rounds of spraying with insecticide and much vacuuming, we still find the occasional flea at home. Even though it’s irritating to have them, it’s hard not to feel a grudging respect for creatures that are so well-adapted to their environment.

If you would like to find out more about how natural selection works, why not sign up to some of our upcoming courses on evolution at ICE:

Life as we know it, with Dr Matthew Wilkinson

Evolution of you and me, with Dr Neil Shailer

Evolution, a new online course.

or have a look at an ICE presentation about evolution on youtube


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Collecting insects the SAFE way

A view up into the canopy at SAFE, Most of the forest has already been heavily disturbed by logging.

Two of the most important things to remember when designing an ecological survey are that the methods chosen need to be replicable and that the data collected should be representative of the area and the species being studied. In practice, these things are often difficult to achieve and need careful thought and design. As part of the SAFE Project, we wanted to quantify the impacts of logging and conversion of rainforest to oil palm plantation on the arthropod community. By carrying out the survey before logging had started and throughout the conversion to plantation, we aimed to catalogue specific changes in the insect community that occur as plantations become established.

The first thing was to choose the type of trap to use. There are dozens of different ways to survey for arthropods: everything from searching an area by hand to setting pheromone traps that attract the males of a specific species. We wanted a method that would collect a wide range of species, thereby representing the whole arthropod community, and that could be used equally effectively in both forest and plantations. Another consideration was to ensure that each trap collected enough individuals to be representative of the area, but not too many, as this would reduce the number of traps that could be set and processed.

Fogging for insects in an oil palm plantation.

During previous research in Malaysia, I’ve often used insecticide fogging to collect arthropods living in the rainforest canopy. This involves a large bazooka-like machine which pumps a cloud of biodegradable insecticide up into the rainforest canopy. The insecticide surrounds the leaves and branches of the tree like a fog, causing canopy-dwelling insects to drop to the ground where they are collected in fabric trays. Not very environmentally-friendly you might say, but this is one of the only ways of collecting high-canopy arthropods – not an easy task as the largest rainforest trees can be up to eighty metres tall! One problem with this method is that carrying the fogging machine out into the forest can be difficult and dangerous on steep and slippery tracks. Fogging machines are also extremely temperamental, and a sweaty walk often ends with a frustrating half-hour of failing to coax the machine into life before carrying all the equipment back, unused. More importantly, the tree canopy is destroyed during logging and we needed a method that could be used equally well in forested and plantation areas. Another method I had used before was to collect leaf litter from a set area of the forest floor, from which insects could then be collected. Although this would work well in forest and plantations, it wouldn’t collect arthropods actually living on the trees. Clearly what we needed was a method that would collect insects from both the forest floor and above.

In the end we decided to design a trap that would catch insects as they walked or flew close to the ground. As a base to the trap, we chose a plastic funnel that would be sunk into the soil with a collecting bottle at its base. Any insects running along the ground would fall into the funnel and be collected in the bottle. Fitting inside the lip of the funnel, we attached two pieces of interlocking transparent perspex sheets, which would act as a barrier for any flying insects and cause then to fall into the funnel and so the collecting bottle. A problem with this is that lots of insects tend to crawl or fly upwards when they encounter a barrier* and these would escape. We therefore added a gazebo-like star of fabric at the top of the sheets with an upturned funnel enclosing this, to which we attached another collecting bottle. Any insect encountering the perspex and travelling upwards would therefore be corralled into the funnel and collected in the bottle at the top of the trap.

An insect trap being set and a completed insect trap at SAFE. The perspex sheets intercept any flying insects, which either fall into the funnel at the trap base or crawl up into the fabric funnel at the top.

Having designed our trap, we then had to test how well it worked in the field. We had several prototypes made and, with the help of the SAFE research assistants, set them out in the forest and oil palm plantations. In the labs at Maliau, we cleaned, identified and counted the insects we had caught. After some tweaking, we found that our traps worked well to collect a wide range of different arthropods. More active insects like flies and wasps were more common in the upper part of the trap, while slower more clumsy insects like beetles were caught in the lower part. Catching this range of groups is essential, as it ensures that the traps are sampling a broad cross-section of the community, and that changes as a result of deforestation can be assessed for the whole arthropod community.

Beetles under a microscope: some of the different varieties caught in the SAFE traps.

We have now set out and collected the traps across the SAFE sites three times. Samples were taken from nearly 600 individual trapping locations across the primary forest, logged forest and oil palm plantation habitats. This represents one of the most extensive inventories of arthropod communities across a range of habitat disturbances ever collected in the tropics. Sampling on this scale would never be possible without the help of our large team of SAFE Research Assistants who carry out the sweaty work of carrying the traps into the forest, setting, collecting, and bringing them back. We are now beginning the process of sorting and identifying the samples, which consist of hundreds of thousands of individual arthropods. It is clear that loss of forest and conversion to oil palm plantation have severe impacts on biodiversity. This project will help us to understand exactly how and why these changes occur, so that management can be altered to reduce as many of these negative changes as possible.

*Pick up a slow moving insect like a stick insect and you can prove this for yourself – if you hold your hand upwards they will tend to walk onto it, hold it down and the insect will crawl up your arm!

If you would like to find out more about how science works, how to design your own research projects, conservation and natural history we have lots of courses coming up at Madingley:

Conservation: from theory to practice - 7 September 2012

H is for holly, hornbeam and hawthorn - 2 November 2012

Birds: their hidden world - 9 November 2012

Biological collections at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge: a unique historical record - 7 December 2012

Marine biology and conservation: exploring planet ocean -25 January 2013

Cambridge collections - 18 February 2013

How science works - 19 February 2013

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Eating Out

Some of the saltwater tanks in a seafood restaurant in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Photo Jake Snaddon

One of the fun things about research in the tropics is trying the food and drink in the different countries you visit. Some of my favourite places to eat in Malaysia are the seafood markets. In the bustling town of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah there is a ramshackle mass of stalls that fringe the seafront. Every available space is crammed with a multicoloured selection of rickety plastic tables and chairs. The air is smoky from the open-air barbeques, offering everything from ayam laut (sea chicken – a leaf-shaped white fish) to prawns and whole baby squid. Some of the more up-market of these eateries even boast a selection of giant salt-water tanks, each alive with fish and other creatures that swim around their sparse homes, waiting to be chosen as someone’s dinner.

Mantis Shrimps in plastic drinks bottles. Photo Jake Snaddon

From a biologist’s point of view, looking in these fish-tanks is a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand you see some amazing sea creatures, but on the other many of the species on offer are far from sustainably harvested and illustrate the impacts of overfishing in the region. Here there will be a deep-sided container full of cockles, there a shallow, algal-covered tank filled with giant prawns, their antennae waving above the surface as if trying to attract your attention. A popular food always seems to be mantis shrimps. These look like elongated lobsters, are striped like humbugs and have long antennae and beady, protruding eyes. The most obvious difference is with the claws. Unlike the heavy pincers of lobsters, mantis shrimps have a pair of curved and wicked-looking scimitars, which the animal can extend with amazing speed to harpoon its prey, just like a praying mantis does on land (for some beautiful footage of a mantis shrimp in action, click on this link). This strike can be so strong that they have even been reported to break the front of a fish-tank. Perhaps for this reason and because they would probably eat each other, the tanks containing the mantis shrimps are filled with plastic bottles, each with a shrimp inside. The mouths of these bottles are just too small for the shrimps to escape: a bit like a crustacean ship-in-a-bottle. If you can overcome your guilt and order one, they are brought to the table, roughly cut into quarters and fried in a sweet, sticky sauce. They taste almost exactly like prawns, although a bit stringier in texture. An advantage is that you get to examine their amazing front limbs more closely and see how each spine fits neatly into a sheath on a corresponding section of the leg.

A Coconut Crab hanging by a thread. The crab was alive and would occasionally stretch out its long legs and wiggle its antennae, a bit like a person in a queue shuffling their feet. Photo Jake Snaddon

Sometimes the animals on offer come as a surprise. The last time I visited one of the markets, I was amazed to find some of the giant coconut crabs for sale, each hanging from a thread tied around its middle and slowly revolving in the humid air. These slightly-freakish looking animals are closely related to hermit crabs, but rather than borrowing a succession of shells, these have hardened carapaces of their own. Each was about twenty centimetres long, reddish and spotted with yellowish dots, like a strawberry. Although marine in origin, they spend their lives out of the water at the top of the beach, where they scavenge for food. Anecdotal reports claim they can climb up coconut palms and use their claws to cut through the stem of the nut so it falls to the ground where they can feed on it. Whether they can really do this or not, their claws are extremely strong and you certainly wouldn’t want one to nip you. I’d never seen them for sale before so I asked one of the stall owners about them, who told me that they had become very popular and expensive. They aren’t found in Borneo and the ones I saw had been imported all the way from the Philippines.

A Humphead Wrasse. Even young fish like this are easily identified by a network of bluish crows-feet lines that radiate out from each eye. Photo Jake Snaddon

Some of the bigger tanks in the market contained the larger reef fish: groupers and wrasse. I even saw a young Napoleon Wrasse: one of the very largest reef species, now rare due to overfishing. This one was small: only about thirty centimetres in length – about as long as its tank was wide. In the wild adult males can grow to over a metre and are easily distinguished from other species by a large hump, like a quiff, that jut out from the front of their head. Something about this peak, together with their pouting lips makes them resemble a fishy Elvis Presley, but without the hips. Helen Scales, a researcher in Cambridge, studied this species for her Ph.D. and discovered how severe the effect of overfishing has been in Malaysia. Because they are long-lived and slow to reproduce, their numbers have declined dramatically and fishermen are forced to catch smaller and smaller fish over an ever-expanding area. As more expensive and profitable species get harder to find, so smaller and less profitable fishes are chosen, which then also decline, eroding the reef diversity piece by piece.


If you would like to find out more about issues relating to conservation, we have several relevant courses coming up at Madingley:

Conservation: from theory to practice

Bees, flies and flowers: the ecology of pollination and why it matters

Helen Scales is also a tutor at the Madingley and is running a course on marine conservation next year; a must for anyone interested in the marine environment:

Marine Biology and Conservation: Exploring Planet Ocean

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SAFE Project revisited

For most of the last two years I have lived and worked in the rainforest in Sabah, Malaysia, helping to set up the Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems (SAFE) Project.

A small area of rainforest left on a steep hilltop, surrounded by newly planted oil palm.

The SAFE Project takes advantage of an 8000-hectare area of logged forest, earmarked for conversion to oil palm plantation in the coming year, to study the impacts of habitat change on biodiversity. By working closely with the company involved, the SAFE team has established and mapped a network of forest areas of varying sizes (1, 10 and 100 hectares), which will not be cleared when the rest of the logging takes place, and will therefore become forest fragments within a matrix of oil palm.

At the start of the project, we established sampling points throughout the conversion area, as well as in control areas of primary forest (at Maliau Basin Conservation Area), logged forest that will not be cleared, and established oil palm plantation. At each sample point, we collected a whole range of data that reflect the state of biodiversity before clearance. This included marking out and measuring nearly 200 individual vegetation plots to monitor tree diversity and biomass, and establishing over 500 individual insect collection points. This month I travelled out to help with the latest round of insect collections.

Menggaris trees left standing in oil palm plantation on the road from Tawau. Before logging these would have been surrounded by forest of a similar height.

To get to SAFE, you fly to Tawau town before taking a four-wheel drive to the campsite. The project base is about two hours from town, just beyond the expanding boundary of oil palm plantation and still in forest. People visiting Borneo for the first time often expect to see towering rainforest crowding up to the roadside, but this isn’t the case. Most of the drive from Tawau to the SAFE campsite is through oil palm plantation; row upon regular row of the palms stretching away, almost as far as the eye can see. Only on hill tops are there scrubby patches of forest left, often more vines and wild ginger than trees. As you drive, you occasionally see the massive pale trunk of a Menggaris tree emerging out of a green fuzz of palms at its base; a silent reminder of the forest that has so recently been cleared. Menggaris are among the tallest trees in the forest, but they have soft wood and often contain bee nests (which are harvested for honey) and therefore escape logging. Driving through oil palm plantations with the windows down, you can feel the baking heat outside. Oil palm plantations also have a distinctive sweet and slightly sickly smell that comes from the partly decomposed oil palm bunches which are piled around the base of the palms as mulch. Keep the window of your car down as you cross the boundary into forest and you can feel the temperature drop. Even logged forest is cooler than oil palm and smells of rich, damp leaf litter.

The cooking area at the SAFE campsite.

The SAFE campsite has grown organically since the start of the project. Originally there were only fifteen of us living there; all of the blue canvas shelters close to the river and each with its complement of fixed hammocks supported on a wooden frame. Now there are often more than forty people staying at the camp so the shelters have expanded away from the river and look like a miniature shanty town. Over time staff have brought their families and built their own canvas-covered houses. There is a central eating area with a big wooden table, a kitchen, a toilet (with a real flush) and even a TV area with a satellite dish (originally built for the World Cup). As we arrived this trip, I could see a large group of scientists sitting around the central table, busy at their laptops. Several of the research assistants were watching television (inevitably a sitcom) and others were cooking, so the smell of the forest mingled with frying fish. Just below the camp is a rapid, sparkly little river that provides the drinking water as well as somewhere to wash away the sweat and mud after a day of fieldwork. If you’re late back and it’s already getting dark, you can lie in the stream and watch fireflies flitting up and down the riverbank, occasionally resting on the overhanging leaves and flashing their semaphore to each other.  

As well as nearly thirty full-time staff working on the project to collect core data and help visiting researchers, there are now over 100 collaborative scientists working in association with SAFE. These are from both Malaysian and international institutions and study a broad diversity of different taxa and subjects. SAFE has researchers working on trees, invasive plants, ants, termites, aquatic insects, frogs, birds, bats, rats and large mammals. By taking advantage of the clearance already scheduled to take place in the area, SAFE represents a rare opportunity to investigate the impacts of rainforest conversion to oil palm and to find out how landscapes can be managed to produce crops, but still support biodiversity. Such information is essential if we are to learn how best to manage tropical ecosystems. With an ever expanding global population, growth of tropical agriculture is essential but generally comes at a cost to biodiversity.

Despite the importance of agriculture in the area and the value of the project, it’s hard not to find the thought of forest clearance at SAFE saddening. Over the last two years we have met a wide range of species living in the area including Orang Utans, gibbons, elephants, Clouded Leopards, and Flat-headed cats. In all likelihood, most if not all of these species will disappear following clearance and the area will never again support a rainforest ecosystem. The river at the camp will become muddy with erosion from the plantations and not be good to wash in. But conservationists have to be realists: the world’s population needs oil palm for food and this comes at a cost. The important thing is to discover how to save as much of this tropical biodiversity as possible. 

If you are interested in learning more about global conservation issues, why not come along to the Madingley Lecture being given by Professor Andrew Balmford on the 8th of October: Nature’s Glass: half full or half empty? This talk promises to be a fascinating look at the state of global biodiversity today.

We are also running a new weekend course on practical conservation in Madingley on the 7th of September. See Conservation: from theory to practice for more details.

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Counting butterflies at Madingley

Walking along a sunny woodland path and counting the number of butterflies that fly in front of you doesn’t sound like cutting-edge science, but if enough people across the country do this each year, then these records can provide vital information on butterfly populations. Butterfly transects like this were first established in the 1970s and there are now over 1600 throughout the UK, providing some of the best long-term evidence of changes in species’ abundance and distribution as a result of habitat loss and climate change.

At Madingley, alongside several other projects set up to find out more about species living in the hall grounds, we’re starting a butterfly transect next year. To make sure that everything’s ready in time, I’m finalising the route and testing it this summer.  Not only is developing a butterfly transect a great opportunity to learn identification skills and find out more about the different species found in your local area, but it is also a chance to contribute data to a nationally-important monitoring scheme.

Setting up a butterfly transect is quite easy. First of all you need to decide on a route (usually 2-4 km in length) that can be walked each week over the flight season of the butterflies (from the beginning of April until the end of September; a total of 26 walks). As this is a real investment of time, it is often best to share responsibility for monitoring with a group of people; at Madingley, I’m hoping to persuade some colleagues to help with the weekly counts! The transect route should reflect the different habitat types found in the survey area. We have quite a range of habitats at Madingley: everything from established woodland, to meadows, lake-sides and gardens. I therefore used a map of the grounds to decide on a route which included a representative portion of these habitat types, was about 2km long and could be walked in about an hour (ideal for an interesting lunchtime stroll). I then chose a fine day to walk the proposed route. I recorded the amount of time it took to complete the route, as well as points at which the route could be divided into different sections of similar habitat. I ended up with the map below, which shows the transect passing through a range of different areas and divided up into 12 sections of fairly equal length.

The Madingley butterfly transect route and a view from part of it.


From next month, I will start counting the butterflies I see along the route each week. To do this, I will simply walk the route at a steady pace on a fine day and record any butterflies which fly into an imaginary 5m by 5m square in front of me (for full butterfly monitoring methods see the Butterfly Monitoring Scheme website). This won’t make a full record for this year, but I’m hoping that this will give me a chance to iron out any problems and make sure that the route encapsulates the species diversity found in the Madingley grounds.

So why not set up your own butterfly transect? Butterflies are a great group of insects to get started with and there’s loads of information online about their biology and how to identify them (for example, see  the UK Butterfly Monitoring Scheme website). There are also other events you can get involved with to learn more about butterflies, such as this year’s Big Butterfly Count. At Madingley Hall, we are also running some courses in the next few months which will put some of this monitoring work in context and teach participants how to study some different groups of animals and plants. For example, see:

Conservation: from theory to practice

H is for Holly Hornbeam and Hazel

Wild at Madingley

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