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.

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