The BBC reported today that Fermanagh is the happiest place in the UK according to a recent survey by the ONS. Is there a link with the exceptional freshwater biodiversity levels we found during our work in the Upper Lough Erne region, part of Co. Fermanagh? Our Lake BESS work is only a preliminary step towards answering such fundamental question: a whole new research agenda lies ahead of us to better understand the value of nature and ecosystems in what is often referred to as coupled human-environment systems.
Here is a short summary of the talk we gave yesterday, at the Aquatic biodiversity and ecosystems conference held at the University of Liverpool, where we asked the question: Does connectivity between lakes enhance biodiversity resilience to eutrophication in the Upper Lough Erne area and in The Broads? A talk based on the same research was delivered in Baltimore, USA for the 100th Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America – see this post.
Our data was a compilation of lake surveys in both lake districts and for two time periods: the 1980 and recent time (thanks you to all our partners who were willing to share their data, by the way!). Each lake survey comprises of:
- Extensive botanical work, recording aquatic plants from the open water and the marginal zone, and
- Collecting water samples that are later analysed in the lab for phytoplankton abundance, concentration of nutrients such as phosphorus and water chemistry in general.
Our data shows that nutrient pollution drives ecosystem functioning in both regions and during both time periods. This reminds us on the importance of good policies to protect freshwaters while maintaining thriving agriculture.
The situation with biodiversity is a bit different as it appears to be influenced both by the local conditions (lake size and shape, nutrients status) and landscape-wide connectivity. One main difference between the Upper Lough Erne lakes and the Broads is that flood connectivity in the Upper lough Erne is a major factor structuring in the aquatic plant communities there. Does this induce greater resilience? remains a pending question we are working on.
All these results are being written up into a scientific article, so please get in touch if you’d like to discuss or report them!
The 100th ESA annual meeting was a great experience! It was an opportunity to present our work, of course, but what I really enjoyed was the breadth and depth. The breadth of ecological topics represented was exceptional – speak about biodiversity!- and the depth of the talks and of the understanding within each subfield was phenomenal.
I would like to highlight three researchers and their talks. There were many other remarkable ones but these actually tie well together in what I would call a list obstacles for our societies to deal effectively with the biodiversity crisis and with ecological issues in general.
Stephen Jackson from the University of Arizona, USA, presented five major challenges for ecology. Among those, three could be labelled as governance challenges within ecological research – whether within academic institutions or in the way academics interacts with decision makers and land managers.
Two others were more directly related to our science. Stephen notably put an emphasis on the difficulties related to defining nature in a context of ever-changing conditions – and in a context of omnipresent human pressure.
This last point was further developed by Jens-Christian Svenning from Aarhus University, Denmark. It was divided into three categories: disequilibrium dynamics, novel ecosystems and trophic cascade. These three ecological phenomena remind us how much ecosystem function in a complex way. As a result of this complexity, ecosystems have futures that are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to predict.
Jens-Christian presented several compelling examples to illustrate his talk and I would refer anyone interested to his publication list.
Finally, Shannon Hagerman, from the University of British Columbia, Canada, provided a wider framework explaining the origin of these institutional and ecological challenges.
Shannon’s work focusses on the values underlying expert opinion in biodiversity science and claims that today’s novel impact created by human activities not only threatens biodiversity in a direct way (as we all understand it) but it also deeply questions the values that have hitherto guided conservation actions.
It can be postulated that this crisis of values within the field of conservation at large creates obstacles for us to deal effectively with the biodiversity crisis itself and with ecological issues in general.
This is a very simplified synthesis of these three talks, that certainly does not do them justice, and the opinions expressed are mine. Ambroise, Sheffield, UK, August 27th 2015
This post highlights another project Carl Sayer, Lake BESS’s principal investigator, is involved with: The Norfolk Pond Project. Ponds sustain a major share of freshwater diversity yet they have been subjected to near-systematic destruction, pollution or abandonment since WWII.
After years of neglect by conservation and research compared to other habitats, ponds are finally being incorporated into UK aquatic conservation approaches and the Norfolk Pond Project is an excellent example:
“Norfolk holds more ponds than any other English county with an estimated 23,000 ponds present. Most of these ponds are located in farmland, and have their origins as marl or clay pits and in some cases livestock-watering ponds dug in the 17th to 19th centuries. “
“In addition the Brecks, west Norfolk and sites north of Norwich are home to some of the most amazingly diverse ancient ponds in the UK, pingos – ponds that occupy ice depressions formed during the last great ice age. A great place to see pingos is at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s nature reserve, Thompson Common.”
“The Norfolk Ponds Project aims to reverse the decline of Norfolk’s ponds so that agricultural landscapes contain a mosaic of clean water ponds with fewer ponds overgrown by trees and bushes.” Read the leaflet for more information on this exciting new project!
Thanks to Carl for providing all the material for this post.
The eutrophication (or excessive enrichment by nutrients as a result of human activities) of lowland lakes is a widespread problem globally but is particularly serious in densely populated areas of Europe and North America.
While the negative effects of nutrient enrichment are considerable in term of biodiversity loss and alterations in ecosystem functioning, one possible positive aspect is the increased rate of organic carbon burial. This means that regional carbon budgets may benefit from eutrophication, leading to a positive effect on climate regulation.
The possible climate regulating role of lakes as carbon sinks is only now being evaluated but to date there has been limited consideration of change in organic carbon burial rates in response to eutrophication.
A recently published study by Helen Bennion, one of the Lake BESS team, with John Anderson (Loughborough University) and Andy Lotter (Utrecht University) has revealed that the accumulation rates of organic carbon in many European lakes have increased by at least four to five fold over the last 100-150 years (Anderson et al., 2014).
This piece of research compiled data from about 90 European lakes and found background estimates of carbon burial ~ 5–10 g C m-2 yr–1 compared with an average rate of around 60 g C m-2 yr–1 for lakes subject to eutrophication in recent decades.
They show that the organic carbon burial rates for European eutrophic lakes reflect phosphorus availability – a pollutant coming for example from domestic waste waters and farming – and are considerably higher than previously thought. This has clear implications for our current estimates of regional carbon budgets and for the role lakes may play.
The authors suggest that enhanced organic carbon burial by lakes is one positive side-effect of the otherwise negative impact of the anthropogenic disruption of nutrient cycles: eutrophic lakes are sequestering more organic carbon than at any other time in their history.
Within the Lake BESS project, changes in organic carbon burial rates will be calculated for the study sites in the two lake regions to determine the role of these lakes as carbon sinks and hence in providing the important ecosystem service of climate regulation.
Reference: [include link]
Anderson N.J., Bennion H. & Lotter A.F. (2014) Lake eutrophication and its implications for organic carbon sequestration in Europe. Global Change Biology 20, 2741–2751. doi: 10.1111/gcb.12584
‘How do bryozoans travel?’ is one of the questions we are going to address within our project. Beth Okamura is telling more about this aspect of our work:
“This summer we are planning to collect dormant propagules called statoblasts that are produced by freshwater bryozoans (see what bryozoans are on wikipedia). We will focus on the spined statoblasts produced by the lovely Cristatella mucedo.
According to the Victorian naturalist George Allman , whose classic figure of Cristatella appears above, “a more interesting and beautiful animal than […] Cristatella mucedo can scarcely be imagined” (Allman 1856), an opinion that at least one of us adheres to – guess who! (ed. note: Beth is world-leading expert on Bryozoan, see her profile at the Natural History Museum).
Allman’s figure depicts a colony of Cristatella with various tentacular crowns (each about 1 mm) raised in filter feeding, the entire colony being drooped over and encircling aquatic vegetation. The figure also shows the spined statoblasts (also about 1 mm) in various developmental stages.
Statoblasts of Cristatella become attached to waterfowl (facilitated by their spines) and also, being buoyant, they initially float.
We aim to bolster our BESS project by examining relative levels of gene flow between Cristatella populations in sites associated with the Lough Erne and the Norfolk Broads systems, hypothesising that gene flow will be greater amongst sites in the more highly connected Lough Erne system.
The work is in collaboration with Hanna Hartikainen at ETH, Zurich.”
The islands of Britain and Ireland have over 40 species or hybrids of pondweeds (genus Potamogeton). This diversity in pondweed is one of the highest in Europe with most European species being represented. Unfortunately local diversity and abundance of pondweeds have declined over the 20th Century, as a result of habitat destruction and pollution. The Upper Lough Erne region and The Broads are two areas of importance for the conservation of pondweed – but “what can we learn from these strongholds?” and “what measure could enhance their recovery nationally?” are questions we are trying to address part of the Lake BESS project. (Photo by Ambroise Baker: P. polygonifolius in full bloom).
“In this short film I asked some of the people I work with about the management of biodiversity and water in Broadland. Their thoughts are set alongside some of the most beautiful photos of wildlife and wetland landscapes. We hope you enjoy it” Andrea Kelly Senior Ecologist at the Broads Authority
Lake BESS scientists Nigel Willby and Ambroise Baker attended the BESS Science meeting on April 1st and 2nd in York. It was extremely interesting to hear about the progress of other projects part of the same research programme about Biodiversity, Ecosystem Services and Sustainablility.
We presented our research plans and highlighted the complex relationship between drivers of change and ecosystem services with this slide:
The BESS programme addresses a broad range of services but we were impressed by the prominent role of cultural ecosystem services across projects, research areas and ecosystem types. Their quantification and mapping remains an arduous task and much work is on the way.
We also heard sobering thoughts about alternative regimes and tipping points in ecosystems by Adrian Newton from the University of Bournemouth. It will be important to better understand how such rapid and unpredictable changes in ecosystems can have an impact on service delivery over time.