Highlights of the 2018 Conservation Science course

The 2018 Conservation Science course

The Conservation Science course aims to provide an exciting and hands-on introduction to the field of conservation science, covering changes in biodiversity, threats to biodiversity, protected area management, people-oriented conservation and more! With lots of engaging discussions, conservation hot topics, activities on ecological theory, decision-making and quantitative analyses, the semester sure has flown by! Here, we will reflect on our highlights from the 2018 Conservation Science course. Thanks everyone for making Conservation Science an awesome course!


Part of the 2018 Conservation Science class during our field trip to the Cairngorms

Back to ecological first principles

Conservation Science is a young field, but it has already changed a lot, and continues to evolve. Despite what kind of conservationist you are, we can all benefit from every once in a while going back to first principles – take something you believe to be true, and ask yourself why. A theory was once an idea, and ideas, especially big ones, rarely go uncontested – is there a major criticism, an opposing theory? What about any theories in the making? What contributions can conservation science make along the journey of idea – stylised fact – theory, and do the classic theories conservation rests upon still hold true today? Pondering these questions was a reoccurring theme in our tutorial groups and activities.

Island Biogeography Theory

As has become a tradition in the course, we tested one of ecology’s classics – MacArthur and Wilson’s Island Biogeography Theory – hands-on, with these hands full of tiny plant and animal species (and the odd star!) made of cereal. The distribution and abundance of species on Earth is one of ecology’s eternal questions, and you might be surprised to find out that a question so big can be summarised using three two simple items – tupperware and cereal. Imagine an archipelago (the little grassy area outside our classroom) and in it islands of various sizes (students with tupperware containers), each at different distances from the mainland (a line we drew on the ground). On that particular Tuesday morning, it was raining species – students threw cereal in the air from the mainland towards the islands – species colonisation in action!

We set out our hypotheses, measured, counted, and then went through a quick coding exercise to unwrap the data presents!

Population dynamics

Populations change – across space, across time. One of the goals of conservation science is to reverse population declines, and to do so effectively, we first have to understand how and why populations are changing in the first place. We went back to theory – visiting concepts such as exponential growth and decay, among the many suggested models for population change, and then filled our hands with cereal again. This time, our goal was to count how many individuals of different species there are in Kluane National Park. We added a third tool to our set of tupperware containers and cereal, and designed a mark-recapture experiment. We discussed experimental design, as well as its implications for precision, accuracy and ultimately conservation actions.

This is our fourth year of using cereal to test ecological theory and estimate population size, and in addition to looking at how our different groups did, it’s also interesting to compare among the different years of the course – for example, who’s our ultimate winner with the most precise and accurate estimate of population abundance in Kluane? Does Island Biogeography theory still hold true when you add in temporal replication of our experiment?

Stay tuned for next year, when we will reveal all of that, with a planned blog post titled: “Five years of cereal and conservation – lessons learned and ways forward.”

Until then, you can check out our blog posts on island biogeography and population dynamics here – 20152016 (island biogeography)2016 (population dynamics)2017.

The Politics of Conservation

There is much more to conservation than science. Conservation is an activity that is driven by particular values and ideas about the way the world should be and how that can be achieved. It’s important to recognise that no matter how ‘objective’ conservation science may appear to be, those values may not be shared by everyone. Throughout the course students had several opportunities to engage in discussions about the values they hold and why they want to ‘do’ conservation. We looked at how different values are shaping the conservation agenda, and how this might conflict with the interests of other stakeholders, such as governments, business, and local people. These conflicts were most vividly brought to life during the conservation role-playing game where students adopted the perspectives of these stakeholders and tried to negotiate a land-use plan for a Tanzanian landscape. These games illustrated just how difficult it can be to make decisions that satisfy all stakeholders, and that some form of compromise might be needed. It also showed that not all groups are equally powerful, and that we as conservationists need to take care to think about how we impact on others, especially on the poorest who often most depend on natural resources.

New tools, big data and long-term monitoring

Conservation problems are often complex, and innovation can go a long way in terms of providing a new perspective, or even better a new solution, to issues such as habitat loss, protected area designation and more. As more and more scientists make their data publicly available, the breadth and scale of questions we can ask grow larger. Questions that transcend biomes, taxa and large temporal periods are now possible – thanks to long-term monitoring at sites around the world, and technological advances helping us analyse growing amounts of data. We live in an exciting time, and in the Conservation Science course we want to keep up and give students a taste of all the new angles from which you can approach conservation science.

Same data, different interpretations

Long-term data of how populations and ecological communities are changing through time at sites around the world are extremely valuable for conservation science. As data accumulates, it’s important to remember that people can have different interpretations of the same data, which can potentially influence decision-making in conservation. To see if this really is the case, we opened our (made up) journal AQMCS (Advanced Quantitative Methods in Conservation Science, pronounced aq-mecs) for its second round of publications, following the inaugural issue last year.

We gave students the same dataset, coming from the Niwot Ridge Long-term Ecological Research Site – a montane site whose flora and environment have been monitored for decades to understand ecological processes in high-elevation mountain ecosystems. Each group then independently thought of a question, completed a quick analysis to find the answer, and submitted their 1-page manuscript to our journal. Each group was also a member of our editorial board, so once all the manuscripts were in, we presented our key findings and voted on which manuscript to accept for publication.


This year’s candidate papers for our AQMCS journal!

We think that this experiment is telling us that different scientists do make different interpretations when presented with the same data. You can check out this study that found the same result with analyses of football (soccer) data. We at AQMCS think that the way forward is to make sure our data, code and science are as open as possible, so that we can promote thorough investigations of data and their transparent interpretations in the literature.


A word cloud of all the titles of the 1-page manuscripts using the same data, collated over four years. Interestingly, “increase” is just as common as “decrease”, similarly some people found “dramatic” change, others “varying” change!

You can find our 2015 blog post about the “Same data, different results” activity here and the 2017 blog post here.

The Google Earth Engine

Towards the end of the course, we got hands-on experience with an exciting tool – the Google Earth Engine! Conservation problems are tough, and powerful tools like the Google Earth Engine can help us get closer to the answers. Through the Earth Engine, we explored a place we had recently visited, the Cairngorms National Park, and in just minutes, we managed to extract the amount of forest loss and gain using the Hansen et al. Global Forest Change dataset.


Forest loss in the Cairnforms has fluctuated over the years, and the magnitude of loss is much larger than the magnitude of gain.

Seeing the power of the Earth Engine automatically makes you want to do more and more! We split into small groups to find out how forest cover has changed over the last 16 years in national parks around the world.

Pixel by pixel, we gained insight into where forest gain and loss and occurring, and we pondered why that might be. Are those naturally occurring changes in habitat, or are they driven by anthropogenic actions? Are there any patterns? We put our results in the context of different types of protected areas and different management strategies. Are certain types of protected areas better at preventing loss of forest habitat? Here are our data presents!


Forest cover gain and loss in four national parks in different parts of the world – spot anything surprising or unexpected? You can find the data and the R script to generate these plots on GitHub.

Sankuru, as we found out, is actually a nature reserve, not a national park, and is a category 2 protected area in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sankuru Nature Reserve lost the most forest cover, and interestingly, Manu National Park (also category 2!) lost the least forest cover. After zooming into where forest loss and gain did occur in Manu NP, we suspect that those are naturally occurring changes in forest cover due to river bed moving. We were surprised that there hasn’t been more forest gain in Yellowstone – the classic example of how forests come back after wolf reintroduction.


Forest loss (purple) in Peru – one of the areas we explored in the Google Earth Engine. Within Manu National Park, forest loss mainly occurred along river beds and on hill slopes, suggesting naturally occurring tree loss due to river bed moving and land slides.

Keen to learn more about coding, models and data visualisation? Here are a few relevant Coding Club tutorials:

A course conference with biscuits – preparing for the real world

The Conservation Science course focuses on teaching students about the latest in conservation research, including methods, issues and debates. Whilst this is essential for a career in the field, we also want to take this further, in order to prepare students for the real world. Finishing their undergraduate studies, students should not only be knowledgeable; they should be able to inform, educate and inspire others. If we are to use our research to change the world for the better, we must acquire the communication skills necessary to share our findings and passion.

Therefore, we held a course conference in November, where students presented a ‘hot topic’ of their choice with a poster and short presentation. Attempting to mimic other conferences, students presented their work repeatedly in a short space of time, with others asking questions about the topic. There were also snacks- a highlight of any true conference. Hopefully, this recreation of a conference setting accurately conveyed the intensity and high pressure of the real thing. Not only this, but conferences should be an enjoyable experience. Being able to share our findings with others is one of the true privileges of a career in research. Education is exciting!

Despite the mountain of assignments that students have to face at this time of year, they put on a fantastic conference. With beautiful posters and dynamic presentations, the atmosphere was charged with information exchange. If this conference was anything to go by, we can get very excited about the future of conservation science.

Conservation in action – Field trip to Cairngorms National Park

We celebrated our fourth trip to the Cairngorms on the Conservation Science course! Each year so far has definitely been a highlight of the course, and it’s always great to learn more about conservation practices with beautiful autumnal colours as a backdrop!

Special thanks to Glen Feshie EstateCairnGorm MountainPeter Cosgrove and Badaguish Outdoor Centre and our bus driver Keith for supporting our trip!

We learned from Peter Cosgrove, local conservation expert, about the most important species in shaping British history – the freshwater pearl mussel and the conservation actions being taken today to preserve the species in Scotland.

We visited the Glen Feshie estate and discussed natural woodland regeneration, estate management and control of deer populations. We got great views of the deer and Highland cows and very much enjoyed learning more about the estate and its conservation views!

We took a hike around the Cairngorm Mountain and talked about alpine flora. Here you can tell from where the prevailing wind direction is based on tree shapes, and trees seldom grow to be taller than us people. Though short, some of the trees we saw have decades of life behind them!

It’s been a great year for the Conservation Science course, thanks to everyone involved and we’re excited to see how conservation science continues to develop, perhaps in the future with the help of some of our course alumni!

All photos by the ConSci teaching staff.


Conservation Science – welcome to the 2018 course!

Conservation Science

The Conservation science course introduces the field of conservation science focusing on changes in biodiversity, threats to biodiversity, protected area management, and people-focused conservation. The course combines lectures, small group discussions and hands-on activities. It aims to provide a broad introduction to the field, covering changes in biodiversity, threats to biodiversity, protected area management, and people-focused conservation.

The course aims to further our students’ understanding of the big issues facing biodiversity and the range of approaches conservation organisations use to address them. The course has a strong focus on the development of practical skills with real world application (e.g. oral presentations, science communication via social media, developing evidence-based arguments).

Learning objectives

  1. To understand the concept of biodiversity change and identify threats to global biodiversity.
  2. To understand how and why we conserve ecosystems and populations.
  3. To understand people-focused conservation.

Teaching team


PhD tutors:

We are looking forward to another year of conservation hot topics, cool discussions, quantitative endeavours and some real-life conservation in action during our fieldtrip to the Cairngorms!

Encouraging Whale Hunting in Lamalera, Indonesia

The words ‘encouraging’ and ‘whale hunting’ are usually never spoken in the same sentence. When we think of whale hunting, most of us believe it to be a highly unsustainable practice which belongs in the 18th century and has no place in the modern age. The desire to light Victorian era city streets with whale oil lamps led to sharp decline in whale populations due to their long lifecycles and low reproductive rate[1]. We generally accept that whaling activity is indisputably unsustainable, but upon further inspection, the issue may not be so black and white. A remote island community in Lamalera, Indonesia highlights a moral grey area where the relationship between whaling, sustainability and human well-being may question our beliefs on whaling.


For the Lamalera, whaling has been the primary source of food and income for hundreds of years. In a normal year, they usually catch about 6 sperm whales during the migratory season using traditional fishing methods (Figure 1). Whaling and it’s products are a core part of their tradition and livelihood, with the main part of their diet being whale meat. When the hunters are successful, the whale is brought back to land where villagers all share the arduous task of dealing with the animal (Figure 2), and that one whale will feed the entire village 2. Left over whale products are prepared and traded with the inland mountain tribes in exchange for agricultural products. Because of this system, both Lamalera and the mountain tribes are entirely dependent on the whale for their livelihood, and the loss of whale populations could have negative implications for the people [2,3]. Despite this long-term whaling activity, their fishing ground is still being maintained, and as a result of this, they are considered one of the few peoples to practice sustainable whaling. Their relationship to the whale is almost spiritual, with deep superstitions surrounding the act of whale hunting.


This close and dependent relationship between people and whale hunting isn’t usually what comes to mind when we think of whaling, however, banning whaling will force a difficult choice between the protection of whales and the livelihood and culture of the people. Well-meaning officials are attempting to turn the Lamalera fishing grounds into a Marine Protected Area (MPA), and although it would protect these animals from harm, this would threaten the Lamalera way of life. This policy would put both the Lamalera and mountain villages at risk from displacement, loss of culture, and tradition. Conservation actions such as this have already caused traditional degradation in Japan, Africa and Indonesia [4-6]. Although whaling is a sustainability concern, the negative impacts on the people may outweigh the positives of conserving whale populations. In this case, perhaps the best measure to take would be to encourage the Lamalera people to continue their whaling practices to preserve their culture, tradition and livelihood.


  1. Perry , Simona L. and DeMaster, Douglas P. and Silber , Gregory K. (1999) The Great Whales: History and Status of Six Species Listed as Endangered Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973.Marine Fisheries Review, 61(1), pp. 1-74.
  2. Egami, T. & Kojima, K. Traditional Whaling Culture and Social Change in Lamalera, Indonesia: An Analysis of Catch-Record Whaling 1994-2010. Stud. Whal. 84, 155-179 (2013)
  3. Barnes, R. H. & Barnes, R. Barter and Money in an Indonesian Village Economy. Man 24, 399 (1989).
  4. Mattes, S. Save the Whale? Ecological Memory and the Human-Whale Bond in Japan’s Small Coastal Villages 67-81 Springer (2017)
  5. Shetler, J.B. Imaging Serengeti: a history of landscape memory in Tanzania from earlier times to the present. Ohio University Press (2007).
  6. Ingold, T. The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling & amp; skill. Routledge (2000).
  7. Batafor, A. Help from the village . [image] Available at: http://photovoice.com [Accessed 16 Nov] (2008).
  8. Site View-Tourism. Whale Hunting. [image] Available at” http://viewtourism.wordpress.com [Accessed 16 Nov] (2011).

By Sara

Is Donald Trump the Future of Conservation?

Golf is a sport known for wealthy businessmen, manicured courses, and most recently, Donald Trump. Donald Trump himself, who owns at least 17 golf courses, and is one of the most famous contributors to the sport (Trump.com), has made comments denying climate change. The sport is not often associated with environmentalism, or conservation. But is this sport secretly an untapped resource for conservation, and is Donald Trump the next David Attenborough?


At the 2017 conservation science conference, many scientists presented their groundbreaking research on conservation hot topics. One interesting presentation that poses possible solutions to issues like biodiversity loss is the use of golf courses in conservation.

In the UK, many courses operate in a “heathland” environment. These courses tend to be more open and less manicured than traditional links courses. In fact the St. Andrews “Old Course,” where golf was played for the first time in the 15th century, is a heathland course. The shrubs that surround the course easily blend with the grass on the green, and it overlooks a body of water with its own unique ecosystem.


Golf courses in the UK, therefore, are unique in their potential for biodiversity. Golf courses serve as a niche environment for many species, create corridors for animals that need space to live, allow natural land use in areas that would otherwise be used for urban environments, and allow for a space where people can feel connected to nature.

In several studies, golf courses have proven positive for biodiversity, especially in bird species. In one study, in comparison with farmland, birds and insect taxa showed a higher species richness and abundance on golf course land, with no difference in diversity of herbaceous plant species (Tanner et al, 2004). From studies like these, it is easy to conclude that golf courses not only act as niche environments for species, but are also significantly better uses of land than other options like urban, degraded, or farm landscapes.


Further, Golf courses allow for people to experience the outdoors, often in largely urban areas. In some areas in the UK, up to 2.82% of all land is used for golf courses (Castella, 2013). This significant amount of land, paired with the popularity of the sport, allows for people who would not otherwise, to explore nature and connect with a diverse ecosystem.


Breakdown of land used for Golf Courses in the UK, highlighting three high-use areas. (Castella, 2013)

Shown by the interesting research at this conference, golf courses in the UK can be a positive force for conservation. However, this solution to biodiversity may not work everywhere in the world. In the USA, for example, links courses are constantly bombarded by fertilizers, deforestation, forced removal of wildlife, and widespread irrigation. (Throssell et al, 2009). While in the US Donald Trump and his golf courses are not a hole-in-one solution, in the UK this could a key to conservation.


Bailosky , Brad. Golf Course Bird. Naples, Florida , 2011.

Castella , Tom. “How Much of the UK Is Covered in Golf Course?” BBC News Magazine, 24 Dec. 2013.

Henderson , Chip. Oxford, North Carolina , 2017.

Tanner, R A, and A C Gange. “Effects of Golf Courses on Local Biodiversity.”Landscape and Urban Planning , vol. 71, 2005, pp. 137–146.

Throssell, Clark S, et al. “Golf Course Environmental Profile Measures Water Use, Source, Cost, Quality, Management and Conservation Strategies.” American Society of Agronomy , vol. 6, no. 1, 6 Jan. 2009.

“Trump Golf.” Trump Golf | Trump Organization Golf Clubs | Trump Hotel Collection, http://www.trump.com/golf/.

By Sara

We should invest in urban wildlife

City landscapes are home to a surprising amount of wildlife which we should protect. In a planet where biodiversity is changing at an unprecedented rate, conservation resources should also be invested in urban areas.

You are probably thinking: the planet is suffering because of urbanisation! Not quite though- the planet suffers from other things too, such as extensive agriculture amongst other human activities. Whilst we may associate “urban” with a negative connotation, concrete jungles may in fact house a rich number of species.

At the mid-semester Conservation Science poster conference of 2017, Matthew Reale-Hatem presented his topic “Greening the City: Urban Environments as Conservation Priorities”. He laid out the benefits of conserving urban biodiversity and debunked each urban myth about city wildlife, ending with some recommendations for the future.

So why is urban biodiversity good?

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 11.09.44 PM

A photo taken by Matthew of what he believes to be a Cooper’s hawk casually examining a reusable shopping bag in Maine, USA. [Image courtesy of Matthew Reale-Hatem, 2013]

1. Urban biodiversity

Urban environments provide altered habitats which can encourage speciation. For example, a study on great tits in Europe showed mating call frequency to be higher in urban areas compared to rural counterparts due to traffic noise (1).

This may not be our conventional image of species diversity, but nowadays, no environment is entirely natural. Pollutants have even been found to affect the coldest and darkest places of Antarctica (2).

Screen Shot 2018-05-03 at 11.10.48 PM

The graph above shows how plant species richness is highest per area in the suburbs of Berlin and starts decreasing away from the city, suggesting the outskirts of Berlin provide a better suited habitat for a larger number of species than the countryside.

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2. Educational ability

Urban green spaces are more accessible to city dwellers, which form the majority of the global population (4). Most of the middle class, comprising the bulk of urban dwellers, and especially the lower socio-economic range will not have the privilege or opportunity to travel extensively to the countryside or to “pristine nature areas”. They may, however, have the opportunity to explore and learn in a park in the centre of town, even just for a picnic.

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3. Ecosystem services

Numerous studies have shown that urban green spaces positively affect mental health. Most recently, in a Spotlight on Biodiversity in Scotland conference that I attended, a speaker from Greenspace Scotland passionately advocated for increasing green areas within the urban boundary.

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This figure shows the difference observed in a group of city dwellers for various psychological factors when exposed to green spaces. Positive factors such as attention, energy and tranquillity increased significantly whilst negative factors such as anxiety, anger and fatigue decreased significantly.

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4. Future trends

Matthew hones in on the elephant in the room, which is the inevitable population growth concentrated in urban areas and disproportionately located in biodiversity hotspots. Urban populations, in developing nations especially, are predicted to continue rising at unsustainable rates.

“But, shouldn’t we prioritise less affected areas?”, you might ask. “No”, he replies. Maintaining populations in the city where ecological footprints per capita are lower is actually favourable for overall global biodiversity; this being encouraged by providing a pleasant environment. This opts for a more land-sparing scenario.

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Biodiversity conservation in cities should be a priority. Why does this make sense? Some urban areas show equal or higher levels of biodiversity than their rural counterparts. We also want the remaining pristine areas to remain pristine. Maintaining populations within city boundaries is a benefit for rural biodiversity. On top of that, incorporating as many greenspaces and links to biodiversity as possible will allow people to reconnect with nature from an early age and incite their interest in conserving the planet.


  1. Slabbekoorn H., den Boer-Visser A. (2006). Cities change the songs of birds. Current Biology. 16 (23), 2326-2331.
  2. Klánová J., Matykieqiczová N., Máčka Z., Prošek P., Láska K., Klánc P. (2008). Persistent organic pollutants in soils and sediments from James Ross Island, Antarctica. Environmental Pollution. 152 (2), 416-423.
  3. Reichholf J. H. (2007). Stadtnatur – Eine neue Heimat für Tiere und Planzen. Oekom: München.
  4. World Bank (2016). <https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.URB.TOTL.IN.ZS&gt; [Accessed 14/11/17].
  5. Bowler D. E., Buyung-Ali L. M., Knight T. M., Pullin A. S. (2010). A systematic review of evidence for the added benefits to health of exposure to natural environments. BMC Public Health. 10, 456.
  6. The World Bank Database. <https://data.worldbank.org/&gt; [Accessed 16/11/17]
  7. <https://pixabay.com/p-1562026/?no_redirect&gt; [Accessed 17/11/17]

By Claudia

Keeping the ‘Jungle’ in ‘Urban Jungle’

In the depths of our concrete jungle today we often forget how important it is to keep a natural environment close by.  We are constantly surrounded by biodiversity, even in the depths of the biggest cities. In fact, some urban areas may be described as biodiversity hotspots. From the Super Trees of Singapore; an iconic take on green space in the urban ‘jungle’, to New York’s Central Park; green spaces are often ‘must-see’ attractions in any city. In a recent conservation science conference, undergraduate Tyler Souza presented the topical arguments supporting urban conservation, as well as the controversies surrounding these ideals.


Super Trees in Singapore. Photo by Ilya Genkin (www.genkin.org)

Historically, cities are located in areas which were rich in biodiversity before settlement (1), and so green spaces and parks can sometimes act as a remnant of a once bountiful environment, surrounded by a mayhem of concrete. Urban land area has been, and will continue to increase at a rate much faster than urban populations, sprawling into the natural environment, and devastating innumerable species and habitats as it does(2). The future of green spaces within cities is under threat, as the creeping urban jungle engulfs more land. Conserving these spaces for future generations to enjoy is essential for the well-being of the planet, as well as humanity.

Urban green spaces, understandably, are much smaller than natural wild areas, and so there isn’t enough room for predators to roam. This results in a safe haven for many species of both flora and fauna. Protected by the barrier of the urban jungle, species can flourish, and in some cases survive better in the city than their natural environment (3). In fact, in the USA, 22% of all threatened species are found within the 40 biggest cities(4), and in South Africa, the city of Cape Town is home to half of the country’s endangered species(4). Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, is the only known location of several different endangered species. Conserving these areas, and others like them is necessary for maintaining biodiversity in today’s Urban Jungle.

There are innumerable benefits of conserving green spaces in the urban environment, with improvements in human well-being, as well as profits for the entire natural environment. Numerous ecosystem services are provided through urban green spaces. Air is filtered, and pollution removed to improve air-quality for all city dwellers. Cities can be referred to as Heat Islands, due to the warming effects of the mass of concrete. Green spaces have the capacity to reduce this warming, and cool the surrounding area (4). The trees in Central Park have been estimated to contribute $10million worth of cooling to New York City. This occurs from the shade cast by leafy canopies, and plants release water into the air by evapotranspiration. With the ever expanding problem of increasing global temperatures, it’s important that conservation of urban green spaces continues in an attempt to mitigate the problem.


Relaxation in Central Park, New York. Photo by Marcio Jose Bastos Silva (Shutterstock.com).

Maintaining greenery within cities has also been found to improve human well-being. Many city dwellers use parks as an escape from the stress of an urban lifestyle (2). Green areas encourage physical exercise; reducing the risk of disease, and improving overall health. They also provide the opportunity for rest, relaxation and recreation, which are essential to our mental health; reducing the occurrence of anxiety and depression, and improving our overall well-being.

Humans value biodiversity for many reasons. Maintaining this biodiversity, even in the depths of the world’s largest city, is important for the benefit of humans, plants and animals. The jungles in the ever expanding ‘urban jungle’, are a source of happiness and a glimmer of colour in the monotony of today’s city life.

More information on the importance of conserving green spaces in cities, a useful publication can be found at: http://leaf.leeds.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/LEAF_benefits_of_urban_green_space_2015_upd.pdf


  • McDonald, R. (2015). The Value of Biodiversity in Cities. Conservation for Cities.
  • Dearborn, D. and Kark, S. (2010). Motivations for Conserving Urban Biodiversity. Conservation Biology, 24(2).
  • Ives, C., Lentini, P., Threlfall, C., Ikin, K., Shanahan, D., Garrard, G., Bekessy, S., Fuller, R., Mumaw, L., Rayner, L., Rowe, R., Valentine, L. and Kendal, D. (2015). Cities are hotspots for threatened species. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 25(1).
  • Convention on Biodiversity (2012). Cities and Biodiversity Outlook. A Global Assessment of the Links between Action and Policy Urbanization, Biodiversity, and Ecosystem Services. [online] pp.22-28. Available at: https://www.cbd.int/doc/health/cbo-action-policy-en.pdf [Accessed 16 Nov. 2017].

By Sarah

Humans: The biggest threat to Marine Life and Ecosystems

The Hunters

No place on earth seems to be safe from human exploitation, including the ocean! It has been estimated that during our history, humans have caught about 1,400 different marine species, including big marine mammals such as whales, dolphins, seals, dugongs, walruses and sea lions 1.

Extraction of the ocean’s resources by humans range from large-scale practices such as mining, industrial drilling and modern fishing to others that seem relatively harmless – such as traditional fishing methods in Sri Lanka and Burma. In one way or another, human activities have been affecting the balance of life in oceans all around the world, throughout our long history. Picture1c

No Take Zone in Marine Conservation

At the Conservation Science Conference, Ruby presented the issues in marine conservation related to No Take Zone (NTZ) in a Marine Protected Areas. A NTZ is a marine protected area where all potentially-destructive human activities are prohibited, such as fishing, extraction of natural materials, dumping, dredging, and construction.


Many conservationists think that nature should be left untouched to flourish and recover on its own2. Ruby supported this idea and suggested that to be able to optimally conserve marine biodiversity, NTZs are crucial. However, the implementation of NTZs can be precarious as stakeholders are often concerned with the potential loss of revenue caused by NTZ policies. She also highlighted that sensitive implementation and management of NTZ is an important factor in determining the success of the conservation efforts. Despite facing opposition from many of the stakeholders, many countries have implemented NTZs within their Marine Protected Areas, which ended up benefitting not only the marine biodiversity but also the local fishermen 3. It is important to note that the size of NTZ and time of protection played particularly important roles in influencing the success of biodiversity recovery 3.


Ruby’s presentation triggered my curiosity about the implementation of any NTZs set up in Indonesia, especially since its location within the Coral Triangle. In August 2017, I visited the Raja Ampat Islands (West Papua) and was mesmerised by its underwater beauty. I had never before seen such richness and scale of corals and other marine life on a single dive (e.g. Green Turtles, Barracuda, Blacktip reef sharks, Parrot fish, Trigger Fish and the iconic Tasselled Wobeggong Shark). While interacting with the indigenous people who live spread amongst these islands, I realised how dependent they are on the ocean’s resources and wondered how this pristine environment is coping with population growth in the area. Have any restrictions been imposed by the local government to try and control the extraction of resources?

My research about NTZs in the region led me to the Misool Marine Reserve, which I was very pleased to find and to learn more about. In 2005, a lease agreement was signed between the local community and the Misool Foundation to establish a No Take Zone called the Misool Marine Reserve. No extraction activities are permitted within this area, including fishing, shark finning, harvesting of turtle eggs and collecting shellfish. In a promising development, the dedicated area was expanded in 2010 and now covers an area of 1200 km2. The Misool Foundation’s approach to conservation is not only on safeguarding the environment but also covering other sectors such as education and other social issues, by providing workshops, training, and early childhood education.


As cautioned by Ruby, while NTZs have proven to be effective in conserving marine life around the world, careful management and continuous monitoring are required. The same goes for the Misool Marine Reserve, so in order to ensure the protection of the marine life within the NTZ, 15 permanent rangers patrol the area regularly using drones, boat patrol and radar. It is a rigorous and demanding process, but the hard work has shown positive results. According to scientific surveys conducted by the foundation, over a period of just six years these conservation efforts have shown a 250% increase in Biomass and a similar rise in Giant Oceanic Manta sightings.

Despite the differing perspectives from the scientists, local communities, government, and other stakeholders in many countries, I think NTZs can be used as one of the marine biodiversity conservation methods. However, its detailed policies and implementation should be tailored according to the specific conservation zone and local social conditions. I do hope that the   underwater richness we have today will exist for many generations to come and I believe that NTZs have an important role to play in the process.

Further Reading

Check Misool Foundation’s website –  if you are interested in other conservation projects by Misool Foundation

No Take Zone in other countries – Lamnash Bay (Scotland), Channel Island Marine Sanctuary (US)


  1. Costello MJ, Scott Baker C. Who eats sea meat? Expanding human consumption of marine mammals. Biol Conserv. 2011;144:2745-2746. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2011.10.015.
  2. Colchester M. Conservation policy and indigenous peoples. Environ Sci Policy. 2004;7:145-153. doi:10.1016/j.envsci.2004.02.004.
  3. Vandeperre F, Higgins RM, Sánchez-Meca J, et al. Effects of no-take area size and age of marine protected areas on fisheries yields: A meta-analytical approach. Fish Fish. 2011;12(4):412-426. doi:10.1111/j.1467-2979.2010.00401.x.

By Anning

What kind of a conservationist are you? The Future of Conservation Survey

In 2018, we organised the Conservation Science course for the third time. Over the last three years, we’ve written many blog posts about conservation hot topics (the decline of the Greater-Sage Grouse, rewilding in North America and the problems with palm oil), we’ve told you about some of the activities we do, from using cereal to test island biogeography theory to introducing the students to peer review with our fictional  journal AQMCS (Advanced Quantitative Methods in Conservation Science). You know we like discussing conservation evidence, putting it to a quantitative test with code, and that we really enjoy seeing conservation in action during our fieldtrip to the Cairngorms.

But do you really know what kind of conservationists we are?

Thanks to The Future of Conservation survey, you can not only find out what kind of conservationists we are, but also how our views change with time. The survey is a collaborative project between Chris Sandbrook (UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and University of Cambridge)George Holmes (University of Leeds)Janet Fisher (University of Edinburgh) and Rogelio Luque-Lora (University of Cambridge).


You can take the survey online at http://futureconservation.org/

The purpose of this project is to explore the views of conservationists on a range of issues, as a way of informing debates on the future of conservation. Recent debates about the future of conservation have been dominated by a few high-profile individuals, whose views seem to fit fairly neatly into polarised positions. In this survey, we are exploring the range of views that exist within the conservation movement globally, and how this varies by key demographic characteristics such as age, gender, geography and educational background. (The Future of Conservation website, 2017)

In the Conservation Science course, we introduce the Conservation Debate in our very first session, where we discuss Kareiva’s and Soulé’s papers about what conservation science is or isn’t. This year, we all completed the survey prior to the first session. Most of us fell within the Critical Social Science and New Conservation categories. Three months went by. After many thought-provoking discussions and activities, we took the survey again. So how did our results change?

future_conservationGoing through 11 weeks of lectures and activities has not markedly shifted the kinds of conservationists we are, but we have perhaps moved a bit more towards the center, the middle ground between People and Nature. Our infographic below shows exactly how people’s views changed.


You can take the survey online at http://futureconservation.org/

One person went from Traditional Conservation to Critical Social Science and the rest of the movement was between our most popular categories, Critical Social Science and New Conservation. Perhaps reading and critically discussing lots of papers shifted us more towards the Critical Social Scientist category?

We found taking the survey, and especially taking it twice, quite interesting. In conservation, we often here that if only people had more information about a conservation issue, their views would change. People do what they do, or think what they think, because sometimes they don’t know differently. But is that really the case?

Our 2017 Conservation Science cohort is far from representative, and presumably people enrolled in the course already cared a lot about conservation to begin with. But overall, for us, knowing more and thinking more about Conservation Science, didn’t make a huge difference to who we are as conservationists – or at least in this survey.

Perhaps we can revisit the Future of Conservation again with the 2018 course next autumn and see if these results are repeated!

By Gergana and Isla

Same data – different results? ConSci 2017 introduces AQMCS!

A question that I have always had, is what happens when you give different scientists the same data and ask them to analyses those data. Do different scientists come up with different answers? Do they ask different questions? How much does our scientific interpretations depend on individual perspectives?

In the Conservation Science course we set out to test this question in our activity “Same data, different results?” We used data from the Niwot Ridge Long-term Ecological Research Site – a montane site whose flora and environment have been monitored for decades to understand ecological processes in high-elevation mountain ecosystems. Students and tutors worked in small groups to complete a speed data analysis and write-up activity – a quick and exciting journey though picking a research question, deciding on the methods that best address it, opening the data present, interpreting what it all means, AND writing a one page manuscript.

We love quantitative analysis, and we don’t shy away from statistics and coding – in the past we have counted Pokemon to calculate different biodiversity metrics, we have tested island biogeography theory, and we have gone through live coding exercises in class. Among all those blog posts, we often say we are “getting quantitative” – well, it is an exciting time of the year now, and not just because the holidays are approaching, but because now we can say that we are quantitative! So quantitative, in fact, that we couldn’t resists day-dreaming about a conservation journal highlighting different quantitative methods. And of course, Gergana couldn’t resist making a logo, so we are proud to present AQMCS (pronounced ack-mecs),  Advanced Quantitative Methods in Conservation Science, our course fictional journal!


Our dream journal – Advanced Quantitative Methods in Conservation Science. Though an official impact factor hasn’t been calculated yet, we have observed many students honing their quantitative skills, which can be quite significant.

We all rushed to write up our reports and submit them to AQMCS’s editors – after all, the sooner you submit a manuscript, the sooner you will get your reviews back. We had to wait only a mere three weeks, so as far as journals go, we would like to commend AQMCS’s quick turnaround time. All of out five manuscripts got sent out to review (phew, no straight-away rejections!), and in the final Conservation Science session, we all got to experience the peer-review process firsthand! And though the journal might be fictional, let us assure you that our editorial boards scrutinised the manuscripts and explored them in detail, making for some intense peer-reviewing!


AQMCS’s editors-in-chief, Myers-Smith and Keane, setting the scene for an intense round of peer-review.

Tasked with selecting just one manuscript for publication (publication in AQMCS is very competitive!), students worked away in small groups. Manuscript after manuscript, students thought critically of the studies’ key questions and findings, as well as the methods used to obtain them. Does the manuscript meet the journal guidelines (e.g. a one page format), is the science exciting and novel, does the take-home message contribute to our understanding of biodiversity change?

Some of the submitted manuscripts were over the one page limit – we would like to remind their authors that should they need to present extra information, they can do so in Supplementary Information, which would be published online alongside the manuscript, should it be accepted for publication. One manuscript did not include a methods section – given our journal’s strong methodological focus (it is after all, Advanced Quantitative Methods in Conservation Science), we recommend those authors to implement our suggested revisions (i.e. outline what methods were used and how they advance conservation science) and re-submit. Just like in the real world, co-authorship dynamics were interesting to ponder – who is first author, who is last? One group included an authorship contribution statement, which we appreciated.

Each editorial group presented the criteria they used in the selection process, and finally announced the manuscript selected for publication. It was a close race, and it was up to the last editorial group to break the tie between “Long-term study in Niwot Ridge, Colorado reveals greater increases in spatial and temporal homogeneity within, but not between sites” and “Unprecedented biodiversity changes in continental divide at Niwot Ridge, Co, US”. Though informative, the group felt that the title of the first manuscript was a bit too long, and in the end, they decided that in its next issue, AQMCS will publish “Unprecedented biodiversity changes in continental divide at Niwot Ridge, Co, US” – the first publication in this exciting new journal!


Accepted for publication in AQMCS – “Unprecedented biodiversity changes in continental divide at Niwot Ridge, Co, US”!

The two activities, “Same data, different results” and the AQMCS peer-review session, stirred up many thoughts on biodiversity change, how we quantify it and how we can attribute it to different drivers. We also honed our speed writing skills, and finally, our critical thinking skills – a winning combination!

Isla has been collected the titles of the same data different results papers throughout the years and here they are below.


  • Unprecedented biodiversity changes at the continental divide at Niwot Ridge, CO, US
  • Long-term study in Niwot Ridge, Colorado reveals greater increases in spatial and temporal homogeneity within, but not between sites
  • Baby It’s Hot Outside – Change in alpha diversity over elevational gradients due to temperature increase?
  • Nowhere to go: Biodiversity change at Niwot Ridge, CO, US
  • Potential trends and effects of temperature on species richness on four sites


  • Evidence of adaptation of high elevation plant species to dramatic climate change
  • Increased variance in species richness over time in montane forest-tundra environments
  • Disturbance causes varying levels of species richness change across alpine latitudinal gradients
  • Human activities cause species declines and increases across elevational gradients
  • Higher temperatures decrease biodiversity in alpine habitats
  • Local mountain biodiversity increases by 7% over time


  • Evidence of high-elevation plant community shifts to dramatic climate change
  • Increased variance in species richness over time in montane forest-tundra environments
  • Disturbance causes varying levels of species richness change across alpine latitudinal gradients
  • Human activities cause species declines and increases across elevational gradients
  • Higher temperatures decrease biodiversity in alpine habitats
  • Local mountain biodiversity increases by 7% over three decades

You can also check out our 2015 blog post about the “Same data, different results” activity: Same data different interpretations?

I think this experiment is telling us that different scientists do make different interpretations when presented with the same data. You can check out this study that found the same result with analyses of football (soccer) data. We at AQMCS think that the way forward is to make sure our data, code and science are as open as possible, so that we can promote thorough investigations of data and transparent interpretations in the literature.

By Gergana, Isla and the Cons. Sci. 2017 class

The Cons. Sci. 2017 field trip


This year under a rainbow, we celebrated our third trip to the Cairngorms on the Conservation Science course. Thanks to David Heatherington, Glen Feshie Estate, CairnGorm Mountain, Peter Cosgrove and Rothiemurchus Estate and Badaguish Outdoor Centre and our bus driver Keith for supporting our trip! Our fearless leaders were lecturers Isla Myers-Smith and Aidan Keane.

We started of the field trip by meeting with David Heatheringon from Cairngorms National Park discussing the unique management of a natural area with people working and living within it.

On Saturday morning, we visited the Glen Feshie estate and discussed natural woodland regeneration and control of deer populations.

We flew our drone over the mother Scots pine tree to capture the natural beauty and conservation potential of the next generation Caledonia Forest.

On Saturday, we rode the funicular and climbed to the top of Cairn Gorm mountain spotting ptarmigan, snow buntings and alpine plants on the way. Here we are in our group photo on the summit!

We learned from Peter Cosgrove, local conservation expert, about the most important species in shaping British history – the freshwater pearl mussel and the conservation actions being taken today to preserve the species in Scotland.

On Sunday, we visited the Rothiemurchus Estate and met with Alph to discuss management activities including the farming of cattle and deer, fishing, forestry and tourism.

Finally, we ended the field trip with a tea party at the Potting Shed Tearoom eating some of the best cake in the UK and discussing what we learned over the weekend.

All and all it was a great trip!  Let’s hear from our PhD tutors all about the Conservation Science that they were teaching during the weekend.

Mariana – IUCN conservation status expert

I prepared an activity that ended up being named ‘Threatened or not?’. First, the students had to choose from a pool of Scottish species and identify them, with some even being able to say their Latin name! After that, we gathered all the information that we knew on the species, including whether it was endemic to Scotland, its distribution range, its population size and threats. On the basis of these, the students had to decide whether the species was threatened or not following the IUCN Red List – and there were a few surprises! The quiz highlighted how we can create misconceptions by assuming that certain species are threatened when they are actually not, and vice versa. Finally, we discussed the importance of taxonomy, hybridisation and the local context when assessing the extinction risk of a species. Overall, the trip was a fantastic opportunity for the students to engage in discussions with experts in their field and to hear first-hand about a wide range of conservation issues. And of course, to experience some beautiful landscapes and to show our music skills around the bonfire!


Threatened or not? From the Scottish wildcat to the iconic Scots pine, we pondered how conservation status is determined and what its implications are for conservation decision-making and prioritisation.

Zac Conservation conflict expert

This year saw the return of highland laird, Lord A. V Moore, who once again chaired a town hall debate surrounding the future land management of the Cairngorms National Park. Encircling a roaring bonfire, the students formed small groups, each representing a different stakeholder interest concerning land –use and the ‘natural’ environment of the area. Many different voices were represented, including the local tourism body, a group of gamekeepers, a conservation NGO and a forestry organisation. Each group had time to prepare and deliver a short speech, during which time they could also respond to ‘points of information’ from the floor. The tourism body went first and put forward a strong economic case for a rapid increase in recreational access to the mountains (in the form of a bold new zip-line).  Next came the gamekeepers who elegantly argued for the strong cultural and economic value of grouse moors. Following on the forestry organisation pressed home the need for reforestation and the social and environmental benefits of increased woodland across the area. Finally, the conservation NGO representatives gave a compelling case for biodiversity protection, which combined both intrinsic, instrumental and bequest valuations of nature. Each group then had the chance to cast their vote, to decide which other cause (beyond their own) was worthy of winning the debate. Alas, it was the tourism board that emerged victorious, not least – it can be assumed – due to their bold idea to introduce sustainable, and conspicuously moor woody (excuse the pun), grouse hunting by zip-line.


Role playing rewilding in front of the camp fire.

Sandra – Photographer and alpine treeline expert

There is surely no better time of year to visit the Cairngorms. There is just something special about the way the yellow birch and larch filter the light when the sun is low in the sky. And while this may be a very romantic view of the effect of trees on the landscape, we also discussed in much more pragmatic terms the issues around woodland management in Scotland. At Glenfeshie estate, we saw what happens when you lower deer densities: where one Scots pine was standing tall but lonely on the moor, countless seedlings and saplings are now emerging and may someday make up a forest that will blanket the hillside. And, as we realised when discussing the climatic controls of treelines, much of our Highlands are not quite arctic enough to prevent tree regeneration (if you don’t count the very arctic-like top of Cairngorm Mountain!). Therefore, the future of forests in this region seems to be much more in the hands of landowners and stakeholders than at the mercy of rain, wind and snow.


The golden leaves of autumn in the Cairngorms.

Haydn – Scottish woodland expert and NERC intern

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams suggests that ancient economists, upon deciding to use leaves as currency, overcame the resulting problem of inflation by burning all the forests. Scanning the horizon in parts of the Scottish Highlands, you might be forgiven in thinking that some landowners past (and even present) have had rather the same idea. On the banks of the River Feshie, underneath a copse of regenerating pine, we discussed whether the woods should return to the hills. Should the fantasy of an ancient Caledonia should be brought to life amidst the foggy glens? Should the rank and file of Canadian conifers provide home-grown, sustainable timber? Should the roar of the stag and gaggle of the grouse find its home on the bare hills, iconically Scottish, all around the blooming heather.


Pondering the mother Scots pine tree and woodland regeneration

Such questions are not simply of land use, nor simply of ecology. Who decides? What is it for? Who is it for? Land ownership and the distribution of benefits inevitably, but necessarily, pervaded our discussions. To some, ownership itself was the key – the vast proportion of land in Scotland that belongs to wealthy individuals or giant corporations was in itself unjust. To others, the outcome mattered more – a healthy ecology or free and open access for the public, regardless of ownership. One thing was certain as we continued to wander through Glen Feshie, golden confetti raining down from rejuvenated woodlands, all thanks to the second-largest landowner in Europe. The answers aren’t easy.

Gergana – Biodiversity expert and course alumna

I have been dreaming of going to the field trip for two years, and this year it finally happened! I took the Conservation Science course as a student two years ago, and I loved it! The opinion piece was definitely one of my favourite assignments ever, and earlier this year, it got published in the Biosphere magazine –  you can check it out here if you are keen to learn about conservation in the Australian Outback. I was also very excited about the course having a blog, so I couldn’t stop myself at writing just the blog post that was part of the course assignments, and wrote one more about how our obsession with rare species might be hampering conservation. Overall, I was very inspired and motivated by the course. I was also very bummed out, because I couldn’t go along to the field trip back then, so I only got to hear the amazing stories and look at the beautiful photos. When I came back to the University of Edinburgh this fall as a PhD student, I was thrilled that not only will I get to do my dream research, but I will also be able to do my dream tutoring on the Conservation Science and GeoScience Outreach courses. As we headed out to the Cairngorms, well, you probably couldn’t see my enthusiasm and excitement, because I get motion sickness very easily, but once we arrived, I was all ready for adventure!

The activity I led was a game called “Species on the move”. Here is the premise. Faced with climate change, habitat change, conflicts with human activities and naturally occurring environmental change, species have three options: adapt, move, or go extinct. We focused on moving, or changes in distribution ranges, as this strategy might be particularly relevant in Scotland, where climate change and land use change might force species to move. Each student drew a species card and joined one of two ecological communities. The students, each representing a species, lined up – their current habitats were no longer suitable, so they had to move. Species traits, human attitude and conservation support all influence the success of species on the move. I then called out various criteria for movement, like: “If you can fly, take one step forward”, “If fences can’t stop you, take one step forward”. Half way through we introduced lynx and beaver in our ecological communities, which then had effects on the success of some of the already present species.

The aim of the game was to find out which species first reach their new, more suitable habitat. As students were taking steps forwards and sometimes back (poor rare alpine plants!), we could already put together a picture of how intrinsic factors, like species’ traits, interact with extrinsic factors like land management and conservation interventions, to create dynamic ecosystems, where some species will be winners, and others losers, Afterwards, we heard from our winning and losing species, who all shared their strategies for success or what held them back. Haydn, our Scottish crossbill, shared why he was way behind Thomas, the Common crossbill. Or were those meant to be the same species? Afterwards all of us, winners and losers, had a warm cup of tea and ate delicious cake, a lovely finish to our adventures in the Highlands!

You can download the cards for “Species on the move” here.

Thanks to all who participated and supported another great field trip to the Cairngorms!