Women in Science: The smarter way to monitor wildlife
I watch the rich black soil of the abandoned Ukrainian community farmlands speed by my train’s window as we trundle towards mother Russia. As the train crosses the border, it is flooded with Russian border guards with machine guns and little blue H1N1 prevention masks hiding their faces shouting ‘Pas-parts!’ I frantically dig out my British passport and my best Russian hoping they won’t notice the suspicious looking (but totally innocent) ultrasonic recording equipment in my bag and confiscate it.
Although slightly swept up with the romantic notion of being James Bond on a secret mission, I am actually just a biologist – a biodiversity scientist actually, with a valid visa heading to meet a NGO in Russia to set up a wildlife monitoring programme.
I started out my academic life as an evolutionary biologist, trying to make sense of how evolutionary processes generate the amazing diversity of life on this planet. Although that is absolutely fascinating and fun (why are there so many ants? How did bats begin to echolocate?), nowadays I am a little more pragmatic about my research.
We have converted a huge proportion of wild lands for our own purposes, the human population has reached almost seven billion as I write, and populations of wildlife have declined by 30 per cent since serious record keeping began (around 40 years ago). Extinction rates are predicted to be on the order of the great mass extinctions of our geological dinosaur past. Consequently, my research interests have shifted from exploring the processes that shape the patterns of biodiversity, to using this understanding to predict the future of wildlife on our wonderful planet.
Does it matter if everything goes extinct? Good question but yes, yes it does. It is becoming increasingly clear that wild nature or ‘biodiversity’ as well of having its own intrinsic value also provides a number of irreplaceable services. For example, watersheds delivering clean water, insects, mammals and birds pollinating and dispersing seeds of important crops and controlling crop pests. So that is what I do now – like a weather girl but for biodiversity – trying to understand the future of biodiversity to predict the impact its loss will have on us and the services wild nature provides.
I am particularly interested in diseases – of the nasty Ebola, SARS and HIV/AIDS variety. These are ‘emerging infectious diseases’ and they are on the alarming rise. Over two thirds of these new diseases originate in wildlife (HIV comes from African primates for example). My research has found a relationship between the level of human impact and the number of diseases emerging from wildlife into human populations. Now my mathematical modelling of the interaction of biodiversity, human impacts and global change is helping us to understand how best to prevent the next SARS.
So what has this got to do with Russia and the Stalin-esque soldiers on the train? Well ok, imagine trying to be a weather girl with no access to any data from the meteorological office and with no one monitoring the weather from those little weather stations. Your predictions are going to be rubbish right? Well how many biodiversity monitoring stations or programmes can you think of?
The problem is that we haven’t done a very good job of monitoring what is happening to the wildlife on our planet in response to global change. Most of the existing programmes are on birds or butterflies and focused in Western Europe or North America. I am trying to change that by figuring out smarter ways to monitor wildlife by harnessing people power. Citizens can be turned into scientists by providing easy ways of getting involved to monitor their local environment
I run ‘iBats’ – the Indicator Bats Programme, where we ask people all over the world to record wildlife sounds in their local area. Bats leak information about themselves into their environment by emitting high frequency sound – echolocation calls – to navigate and find food. We can record this sound in standardised ways and identify the species from its call to track changes in bat populations over time.
Bat sound biodiversity acts like the heart beat for the environment and we can easily keep a finger on its pulse to monitor change. My team have even developed an ‘app’ so you can create your very own ‘batphone’ to record bat sounds, using an external ultrasonic microphone plugged into your smartphone. We now have over 15 countries monitoring bat sounds across the world, Russia being the latest and easily the craziest.
Being a scientist helps me understand the amazing diversity and evolution of life and gives me freedom to answer questions that most interest me. This amazing job has taken me all over the world meeting people and wildlife I only imagined.
Why on earth would you want to do anything else?
Dr Kate E. Jones is a Senior Research Fellow at the Zoological Society of London.
She is working with the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Programme and The Zoological Society of London to encourage more young women to pursue careers in science. www.womeninscience.co.ukTagged in: biodiversity, extinction, science, wildlife
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