Friday, 20 September 2013

Should we speed up taxonomy?

The extreme pressures facing biodiversity on our planet are well documented, and our chance to discover new species is likely diminishing on a daily basis. Should we speed up taxonomy to increase description rates?

It has recently been reported1, that the average time between discovery and formal scientific description of a new species is 21 years. The same report also mentions an example where the time line was significantly longer, over 100 years. I think most would agree that even 21 years seems like a long time. One thing is certain, we can not afford to loose any of the quality offered by traditional taxonomy, the issue remains can and should we speed up the process?

Seemingly the technology may just exist to speed up processes, and even potentially increase the quality at the same time. A recent article2 demonstrates the use of scanning electron microscope (SEM), used extensively in other scientific disciplines. Specifically it is the potential usefulness of the detailed SEM image, which can be rotated and potentially examined in 360o from one plane, providing scientists with exact images of the original specimen, and unlimited angles of view. Furthermore, the required technology to utilise SEM images is widely accessible1

Is it desirable to imagine a scientist finding, collecting data (including DNA) and SEM imaging new species in the field, then instantly sharing the images with project partners and/or the public to help identify and describe? Could such imaging techniques be the first step to speeding up taxonomy? Would computer aided recognition of images help identification?


cuatrok77 Flickr account - CC by 2.0

Friday, 23 August 2013

Have we solved the world’s biggest garbage problem?

Although it is widely known that our biggest garbage dumps are in fact in the oceans, only recently has serious consideration been given to solve this problem. We take a quick look at the why and how?

For a long time we have been aware that marine litter is harmful to biodiversity and us, primarily due to plastic not biodegrading, and finding its way into the food chain. Further, the tiny particles of plastic which do enter the food chain can soak up toxic chemicals, compounding the risk1.

It seems policy makers have woken up to these very real problems, and at Rio in 2012, a commitment to a “significant reduction” in marine litter by the year 2025 was made2. In Europe, marine litter has been recognised as a main threat to achieving ‘good environmental status’ by 20202. So it seems the stage has been set for real momentum to tackle this big issue, but how might we do that?

Well, a young Dutch student thinks he may have the solution. Boyan Slat, a 19 year old aerospace engineer, has come up with the Ocean Cleanup Array3. The idea involves anchoring ocean sifters to seabed, and letting ocean currents do the rest. The aim would be the filter 7.25 million tons of plastic over a five year period4. However, some potential issues have already been raised, including the hazard to marine biodiversity.

At the end of May we blogged about the Protei project5, another potential solution to the ocean garbage problem. The potential idea here is to combine the developed shape shifting sailing robot with the power of open source technology. Essentially meaning that anyone can pick-up the knowledge from this project and apply it to any suitable problem, including ocean garbage.

What do you think of the Ocean Cleanup Array? Do you think sailing robots might provide the answer? Are there any other potential solutions out there?


NOAA's National Ocean Service Flickr Account - CC by 2.0 

Friday, 16 August 2013

Are we already at the dawn of continuous biodiversity data?

In my May 31st blog, I wrote that the stage seemed to be set for continuous biodiversity data. The first rays of light from this new dawn may already be here.

A recent article1 highlights how technology is already being used to further real time monitoring of biodiversity. The article talks about the Automated Remote Biodiversity Monitoring Network (ARBIMON), and its application in providing decision makers real time biodiversity data. Two things are particularly fascinating about this methodology: 1) that data can be collected in real time across wide areas; and 2) that the data can be collected in real time across a wide breadth of biodiversity.

The ARBIMON project is a fantastic start, using mostly off the shelf products.  Hopefully the best is yet to come though, with others picking up these techniques and refining and finding ways to make the process even cheaper and easier. Just look at history of most technologies, which start as novel techniques, only to be refined and have their costs driven down. After all, the incentive to have real time data to inform management of biodiversity has never been greater, both in terms of the need for the data and also the reduction in funds available to collect and process the data.

Other real time data projects, for example sense-t2, are building on academic research and focusing on commercial challenges. Such applications include in aquaculture, agriculture, forestry and water. Even indirectly, increasing the efficiency of existing operations in these industries may help to alleviate future pressures on biodiversity. However, the hope is that through commercial refining, we might see a real drive in cheaper technology, increasing the potential for use in biodiversity monitoring across the globe.

Are you aware of projects which might help the real time biodiversity data cause? If so, what are they and what are they doing? If not, what would you like to see happen?


lowjumpingfrog Flickr Account - Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Friday, 9 August 2013

The power to positively influence development?

The power of the citizen scientist has never been greater. But how great is this power, and can it even extending into influencing positive development practices?

A recent Pensoft article1 highlighted the scientific impacts that citizens and technology are achieving. Specifically, the impact that geo-referenced photographs, uploaded onto online data stores, are having in the scientific world. Not least, confirmation of the existence of an endangered species, fifty years after its first description. But how can increased biodiversity data help facilitate positive impacts for development?

Well, the majority of developments begin with extensive project planning. Usually this involves the choosing between several options, requiring large amounts of data. Decisions can be based on a range of factors, including biodiversity impact. The best developers know that by minimising their impact during the planning stage, they can prevent destruction of important biodiversity and save time and money on expensive remediation and mitigation further down the line.

So how can you help? In order to make the best environmental decisions, everyone involved in developments needs access to the latest biodiversity data. Citizens taking geo-referenced photographs, through online data stores and record centers, are helping to facilitate this, like never before. 


Alison Christine Flickr Account - Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic  

Friday, 2 August 2013

Is conservation truly engaging?

Simply put, conservation efforts depend on winning the hearts and minds of a community, whether local or global. Are the tools available being used effectively?

Is a photograph still worth a 1000 words? It is often said that a visual image delivers a much clearer message to the majority of people, than words alone. Certainly the power of the photograph has long been a mainstay of the charity world to invoke emotion, and you could argue there is no better medium for the job of raising instant awareness and empathy for a cause. The International League of Conservation Photographers1 is an example of an organisation who clearly believes this. By linking with scientists and NGOs, the photographers aim to further environmental and cultural conservation. But are photographs being utilised effectively, and can conservationists learn anything from politics?

During the 2012 American presidential election, social media played a vital role in securing Obama his second term2. Not surprising when you consider one study3 showing that young people are twice as likely to vote if they are politically active online and another that 39% of all American adults participate in online political activism. Ok, so you might ask what politics has to do with conservation. When you consider that both politics and conservation have the same ultimate goal, to cause action in an individual and community, then perhaps it is worth taking note.

Is the photograph still vital to conservation? Is social media being used as effectively as it should be? Is conservation truly engaging?

Our annual photography competition is currently open to amateur photographers, so feel free to check it out:


MapBox Flickr Account - Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

When creation is simply not enough

As the social and policy pendulums swing, our environment is being subjected to an increasing number of performance targets. But are we equipped to truly help our environments meet these targets?

The desire to reverse impacts on our habitats and ecosystems has resulted in legislation across many parts of the world. For example, in the European Union (EU) there is the Water Framework Directive, requiring ‘Good Ecological Status’ of rivers by 2015. Targets of this nature, inevitably lead to: 1) current status baselines; 2) remediation and restoration works; and 3) evaluation of efforts.

In the area of rivers, the EU IMPACT project1 is hoping to inform effective habitat restoration. From this project comes a free and open source fish dispersal model (FIDIMO2), allowing the likelihood of fish to (re-)colonise restored or remediated habitats to be calculated. This kind of tool and information should help deliver more effective river remediation and restoration efforts, at least for fish.

But, do we have enough knowledge to deliver effective remediation and restoration work in the first place? If not, what other tools and models are available to help? What more can and should be done?


Peter aka anemoneprojectors Flickr Account - Creative Commons

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Agreement to Help Secure Valuable Global Resource

The World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS, is used by over 80,000 marine biologists from across the world every month and represents the only expert validated list of global marine life. A recent agreement will help secure funding for this valuable global resource.

The agreement means that royalties will be paid to the organisation behind WoRMS, the Society for the Management of Electronic Biodiversity Data (, from every sale of Thomson Ecology’s software tools. Mark Costello, WoRMS Steering Committee and ex Chair, who signed the agreement on behalf of WoRMS explains the benefits:
We believe that making the WoRMS list available, and regularly updated, through software tools in the marine field will have a positive impact on the quality of scientific reporting. WoRMS content is already freely available to anybody from the website, but Thomson Ecology provide added value to users by incorporating it within their desk-top software for users. The income generated for WoRMS by Thomson Ecology will help us to improve the quality, scope and sustainability of the database, in service of the scientific community.”

Tom Gardiner, senior product manager for Thomson Ecology, explains the benefits to users:
The WoRMS list has become an industry standard since its creation, and our users have increasingly fed this back to us. Incorporating the list into our software, means users around the world can now easily increase the value of their data asset. Our software tools have always helped increase efficiency and now users can benefit from reports and outputs being aligned to WoRMS.”

Thomson Ecology will now begin work to integrate the WoRMS list into existing software tools, TREx and Unicorn. To celebrate the agreement, Thomson Ecology is offering vouchers to purchase the new version of TREx for £50 (+VAT) when it is released in a couple of months (see promotion details). This offer is open until end August 2013.

To request any voucher(s) you can email your requirements:


WoRMS News Article
Thomson Ecology TREx Promotion

NOAA's National Ocean Service Flickr Account (Creative Commons)